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Plover Chick at Nehalem!

Last week a historic event occurred at Nehalem Bay State Park. The first plover chick in over 30 years hatched on our beach!

Small, fragile, and fluffy. Like one of these guys

 

This is the third year snowy plovers have tried nesting at Nehalem since recovery efforts began at this site in 2012, and all previous nesting attempts failed. I had thought this nest – a two-egg scrape tended by two adults – was also lost last Thursday, when I found it empty and unkempt, with nothing but the tiniest shell fragment in the bowl. Worse, I found a dead chick a few feet from the nest with no indications of how it got there.

After I had packed up all my gear, I resumed searching for any signs of plovers. That’s when I found the funny tracks – two sets, adjacent, and with the distinct pattern of plovers. They were slightly different sizes, and I dared to hope that maybe one chicks survived.

These seemed to be different sizes. I was suspicious. And hopeful.

Friday morning I went back out to the beach just to see what I could find, and boy, I am glad I did! A lone male was sitting oddly on the sand. Literally on the sand – his belly was just barely touching the ground rather than fully pressed into the sand like a plover that is loafing (that’s a bird-specific scientific term for “relaxing”). He didn’t appear alarmed, either. As a biologist, all his behavior struck me as “hinky”. I set up my spotting scope at the high tide line about 75 feet away, far enough that he wasn’t making any movements that indicated he was upset that I was there.

Brooding male western snowy plover. He is just left of that upright stick in the center of the photo.

The longer I watched through the round lens of the scope the more suspicious I became. Then a crow flew overhead! The male ran, and out from under him tumbled the tiniest little fluff ball. The chick hunkered down and froze, blending into the sand immediately.

I watched through the screen on my phone as I held it precariously against the spotting scope lens.  This was some real “Wild America” playing out before my eyes.  The dad perched on a piece of driftwood, watching as the crow flew off. He bobbed his head, made a little chirp noise, and his chick came running and snuggled under his feathers. Now it was just a puffy daddy plover with two little chick legs sticking out from his breast.

Well, awesome! What now, wildlife biologist?

Well, I’ll tell you!

We aren’t done yet! Western snowy plover chicks are very small and fragile, about the size of your thumb when they first hatch. This little chick now faces a whole new set of challenges compared to when it was an egg, and it takes about a month for the chick to go from fluff ball to fully feathered and flying juvenile plover. During that time, many sorts of threats loom over it:

  • Trampling by beach visitors that don’t know it is there, by exuberant dogs gallivanting through the sand, by horses, even by deer and elk.
  • Predation from crows, coyotes, and gulls – any disturbance that makes the chick exposed to these predators could spell the end!
  • Separation from its dad, which increases chances a predator will notice it
  • Weather – the chick needs to stay with dad to keep it at the right temperature. He shades his chick when too hot, and cuddles it under his feathers when too cold.

How you can help – become a Plover Protector

Western snowy plovers are doing well because the public is helping them out – a plover protector is anyone that wants to see these birds back on Oregon beaches. Small actions you take can have huge impacts! To be a plover protector all you need to do is right here:

  • Abide by recreation restrictions in the designated plover areas . This means no dogs. Your pup may mean no harm but could easily squish a hiding chick. It also means no bicycles, kite-like objects, or other vehicles. These frighten the dad and his chick and can separate them.
  • Watch for chicks on the beach, and if you see any snowy plovers (in or out of the designated areas) give them a wide berth.
  • Watch your step! Plover chicks freeze and rely on camouflage to hide from danger. They also like to hide in small depressions,  like footprints, so forging your own path in the sand instead of staying in tracks left before you is better to avoid trampling chicks.
  • If you spot any snowy plovers, report them via e-Bird or e-mail me at vanessa.blackstone@oregon.gov with the location, date, number of plovers, any bands if you see them, and either a photo or the key marks that tell you they were western snowy plovers.

Happy Plover Day!

Today is Plover Day!

Starting today Oregonians share 16 beaches with this small shorebird for the spring and summer. The only shorebird that nests in the dunes of the Oregon Coast (apart from the wayward killdeer), western snowy plovers are a threatened bird that is making a come-back thanks to all the efforts of conservation groups, state and federal agencies, and most importantly, Oregonians.

Recreation restrictions at beaches managed for shorebirds go into effect today; watch for the yellow diamond signs to show you are entering a plover area. The birds make little nest scrapes in dry sand, and from here through July there could be camouflage eggs out there. For more on recreation restrictions, visit the official OPRD regulations page here.

If you want to know more about these amazing birds, join Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s wildlife biologist Vanessa Blackstone for an in-depth workshop on the western snowy plover. Members of Coastwatch, SOLVE, and folks that just like walking the beach can all learn what to look to aid this tiny shorebird when out on our wild Oregon Coast. The first half of the workshop is all about the bird! The second half focuses on how to survey for plovers, and is required for OPRD’s Plover Patrol volunteers.

When: Saturday, March 18 9 am – 1pm
Where: Kiawanda Community Center, 34600 Cape Kiwanda Drive, Pacific City Oregon

 

WSP two-egg nest

Two western snowy plover eggs. Note there is no vegetation around them – plovers need open sand, and do not nest up in the beach grass.

 

 

Plover Patrol Workshop

Do you spend a lot of time on the beach and want to know more about western snowy plovers? Join Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s wildlife biologist Vanessa Blackstone for an in-depth workshop on the western snowy plover. Members of Coastwatch, SOLVE, and folks that just like walking the beach can all learn what to look to aid this tiny shorebird when out on our wild Oregon Coast. The first half of the workshop is all about the bird! The second half (after lunch) focuses on how to survey for plovers, and is required for OPRD’s Plover Patrol volunteers.

When: Sunday, April 24 10 am – 2pm
Where: Nehalem Meeting Hall, Nehalem Bay State Park

To register: contact Vanessa.Blackstone@oregon.gov

2016ShorebirdConservationAreas

There are 16 Snowy Plover Management Areas in Oregon

Topics Covered

First Half: A Tale of Plovers 10-noon:

  • Western snowy plover identification and life history
  • Threats and protection of the plover
  • Management history and what is happening now

Noon: Lunch break! Get to know your fellow plover lovers. Light refreshments provided.

Second Half: Surveying for Plovers 12:40 – 2 pm:

  • Survey Protocol
  • “Mock” survey to practice! Prizes for those that get it right!
  • Q and A on anything plover

Plovers at Sitka Sedge!

Local residents at Sand Lake have been hearing about Sitka Sedge State Natural Area, the newest addition to OPRD’s parks focused on conserving amazing natural spaces for Oregonians to enjoy. Apparently western snowy plovers heard about it too, and they have set up some home sites!

Active Scrape (raven tracks)

Plover tracks around a nest scrape – the male makes many scrapes and the female picks one by laying her eggs in it! Photo courtesy Jeff Allen

This is the first documented nesting activity at Sitka Sedge since 1984 – a similar story to Nehalem Spit at Nehalem Bay State Park where last April plovers were found nesting there for the first time since 1984. I’m sure there is an interesting theory about that. Either way, they disappeared from our two north coast beaches the same year, and now they have returned one after the other!

Another interesting story is that BOTH pairs of plovers where discovered by volunteers on our Plover Patrol!

 

The beach at Sitka Sedge is one of 17 designated for western snowy plover recovery, and now that birds are in residence a Shorebird Conservation Area is in place. To help this these birds gain a foothold, vehicles (motorized and non-motorized, including bicycles), dogs, and kites are prohibited in the SCA from March 15-September 15. All other recreation must remain in the wet sand. These restrictions give the birds the best chance at raising a family – plovers are very sensitive to disturbance, and need that extra bit of space between us and their nests! You can help be a part of threatened species recovery by sharing the beach and letting plovers nest in peace.

SitkaSedgeSPMA2016

 

Beach Recreation Restrictions Lifted at Nehalem

Beach recreation restrictions on the spit south of Nehalem Bay State Park are being lifted for the remainder of the year. The restrictions went into place this April after a pair of western snowy plovers were found nesting on the spit and were scheduled until September 15, when the breeding period ends.

Lifting the restrictions means beachgoers may recreate in the dry sand, along with their leashed dogs. Vehicle use remains restricted, including bicycles. The park will continue presenting interpretive programs about shorebirds through the summer.

We have been surveying for the birds since first spotting them on the spit this past March, and at this point it is unlikely a pair would start a new nest. There just isn’t time for the parents to incubate eggs and raise young before winter. Even though their nest attempt wasn’t successful, it shows that we are on the right track for shorebird recovery at Nehalem. I would like to thank all our visitors for their compliance and understanding over the past few months. Restrictions will go back in place March 15, 2016, and OPRD will resume surveys for nesting shorebirds. Click here for more information on the HCP (Habitat Conservation Plan) and beach restrictions, and plover recovery.

Peeking at Plovers

It’s been a long, busy summer, and I’ve been out on the Spit many times since discovering our little plovers’ nest. Back on April 9th, I was out with USFWS biologist William Ritchie to “float” the eggs – floating is exactly that. You put the eggs in a jar of room temperature water and see where they float. Based on where they are in the water (bottom = freshly laid, surface = close to hatching), biologists can estimate how old the eggs are and when they will hatch! It isn’t the most precise effort, but it did give us an idea of when to expect the eggs might release the little balls of fluff that are plover chicks.

It also isn’t the easiest thing to do. The adults are not happy about people being close to them, and run away to safety. And you can’t just walk up to a nest, since crows and ravens (corvids) are smart and curious enough to follow a direct trail… or just watch you if they happen to be around. AND you can’t actually SEE the nest because it is so camouflaged, so there is some trial and error in approaching it! We use similar techniques that the corvids use, and follow plover tracks.

Western snowy plover tracks in the sand. MotoX phone for scale.

Western snowy plover tracks in the sand. MotoX phone for scale.

 

So, Will and I carefully checked around to make sure no corvids were hanging out, then carefully crept roundabout to the general area of the nest, then even more carefully floated the eggs. No pictures of that, we wanted to get the work done and get out as quickly as possible. It was a nice day and not too cold, but every moment the parents are away from the nest increases the chances of failure. Will determined the eggs were likely to hatch the last week of April, and then we carefully packed up equipment and snuck away, using a small broom to brush our tracks out of the sand to leave less evidence for curious corvids.

I had my date, and set the calendar! As the weeks went by, ODFW and I took turns checking on the nest, usually seeing the female only through spotting scopes to avoid disturbing her. Our beach rangers let the public know what all the signs were for, and beach visitors were (mostly) respectful of these birds’ privacy, for which I am very thankful.

 

What I saw on most nest checks - through the lens of a spotting scope.

What I saw on most nest checks – through the lens of a spotting scope.

Then I got the email from ODFW. Their Friday nest check had the female off the nest, foraging, and the male wasn’t sitting in her place. That is unusual. Winds were high, though, and ODFW didn’t linger on the beach. All weekend I worried over our little plovers, wondering if A/W/A:V and his unbanded female had lost their nest. I went out on the following Monday to check the nest – to confirm or deny that it was still there.

Nope.

Nothing.

The beach had changed.

What had been a relatively flat sandy spot was now an uphill slope, with no sign of eggs or nest (or my wildlife camera). To say I was sad is an understatement, but at the same time this is what happens out on our Oregon Coast. It is a rough, rugged place, and early nests are often lost to the weather. Since my wildlife camera vanished as well we don’t know exactly what happened to the nest. Did some people walk by on a windy day, bumping the female off the nest, and by the time she came back the sand had blown over her eggs? Was it a crow, or the resident beach coyotes? Was it simply such a windy gust that no matter how tight she sat she couldn’t keep the sand off her precious eggs? I don’t know, and never will (unless that camera washes up somewhere).

Taken April 9, the nest was in between the long, flat-topped board on the left and the tuft of beach grass.

Taken April 9, the nest was in between the long, flat-topped board on the left and the tuft of beach grass.

 

Taken April 23, that long flat log is in the bottom of the photo.

Taken April 23, at a slightly different angle. That same long flat board is in the bottom and the beach grass is at the top.

We continued to survey the Spit for any sign of plovers; they usually nest again after losing a nest, and will keep trying until it gets too late in the breeding period. After late July there just isn’t enough time for the birds to incubate, hatch, and raise their young to fledging before winter. I found some tracks shortly after the nest was lost, but then even those too disappeared.

And the beach continued to change. The southern half of the spit that had been such nice habitat early in the season kept getting more sloped as the winds sculpted the sand around driftwood. The northern half started getting more ideal, with flat expanses and bits of shell. Even though this nest attempt failed, it shows us that Nehalem is indeed attractive to western snowy plover and the HCP plans were not in vain. OPRD and USFWS have opted to lift recreation restrictions for the remainder of the breeding period, since there have been no sign of plovers all throughout May and June.

As for me, I’m planning some habitat restoration to get that beach a little wider, to give the birds a bit more room away from the wind, the predators, and the people. Maybe next year A/W/A:V will come back and try again. Or maybe one of his cousins. Either way, I’ll be waiting with a spotting scope to help them as best I can.

 

WSP two-egg nest

Nehalem has some new residents

“I have a nest! I have a nest! I can’t believe I have a NEST!”

Those were my words at 1:30 pm Friday, April 3.

I was out on the beach at Nehalem Spit, looking for western snowy plovers. And boy, I found them!

Unbanded plover watching over its nest at Nehalem Bay State Park

Unbanded plover watching over her nest at Nehalem Bay State Park

See, March 15 – July 15 is the “detection period” for our north coast Shorebird Conservation Areas, and our dedicated Plover Patrol volunteers go out bimonthly to scan the beach for this tiny dune ghost of a shorebird. On March 26 our Patrol spied 3 snowy plovers, all banded: male A/W/A:V, female O/G:V, and O/Y:V. The V stands for the violet leg band on the right leg, and indicates these birds were hatched on the southern Oregon coast last year. These same birds had been spotted by birders loafing on the spit throughout the winter (check eBird!). But when I got the message that fateful Thursday I was excited! These birds were still on the spit, and the breeding period was at hand!

Cut scene to Friday April 3! I was on site meeting with Dan Elbert of USFWS and Herman Biederbeck of ODFW to strategize monitoring the birds, with intentions to head out and check on the birds. We didn’t really expect to find nesting; the earliest snowy plovers have nested in Oregon was April 17, and that was over two weeks away. The weather did not cooperate though – it was raining. It is so harsh out there for plovers that looking for them in the rain isn’t good for them, even if you can spot them hunkered down, hiding from the inclement weather. My wildlife biologist compatriots left the park, and I stayed around to discuss events with park staff. And then… the weather cleared! Sunny and beautiful and the perfect time to go out on the beach!

Nehalem Spit after the storm

Nehalem Spit after the storm

 

I didn’t really expect to find nesting – or even plovers! I honestly figured they would move on, head back down south, and that we wouldn’t get them to stay without some habitat restoration efforts first. The last time I was out on the Spit driftwood lay so think that you could scarcely put your foot down on dry sand. Near the jetty it was how I remembered –  driftwood packed tight like sardines in a tin. But the further north I went the more it opened up, and the beach was lovely. Dry, flat sand with bits of detritus scattered about, some logs to hide behind, and the occasional shell for camouflage. Maybe plovers were still here. I paused to take some photos – because you never know when you’ll need a good photo of the beach – and a small white thing ran and then halted at the edge of my vision.

Uh oh.

I switched to my binoculars. Plover. She bobbed up and down. My heart rate increased. She ran a bit further and bobbed again.

Uh oh!

That is a sign the bird is uncomfortable! Uncomfortable means nesty!  OMG!! I backpedaled away from the plover and bee-lined for the wet sand, spotting scope whacking my shoulder and bins bouncing! At this distance the plover was just a little white speck, easily missed a midst the driftwood and crab shells. She scurried across the sand and sat funny.

I had that spotting scope up faster than you can say “Big Year Birding.”

A tiny little plover, sitting in the sand. She picked up a little piece of something or other and put it down again. The plover version of knitting?

She stood up, turned around, poofed out her belly feathers like a dancer spreading her skirts and nestled back down again.

 

Western snowy plover on nest at Nehalem

Western snowy plover on nest at Nehalem

 

It’s been over 30 years since plovers nested at Nehalem Spit. Welcome back, little birds! Make your nests, sit tight on those eggs, and raise some little cotton ball babies! I’m honored to be the first to see it, and hope that many more to come will see the dune ghosts dart across the beach.