Last week a historic event occurred at Nehalem Bay State Park. The first plover chick in over 30 years hatched on our beach!
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Does your yard already have bird boxes and you’re wondering what to do next? Try brush piles! Made from fallen logs, branches, and sticks (in that order), brush piles are an excellent way to repurpose slash from dead and fallen trees, pruning, and other woody vegetation removal. Brush piles provide many wildlife a place to shelter from extreme weather and predators all year long, and are especially important to fledglings and ground nesting birds. Other Oregon wildlife that will take advantage of these shelters include mice, squirrels, lizards, snakes, and all sorts of bugs and slugs that the birds and snakes will eat. Audubon provides some instructions here, and the State of Connecticut has a more comprehensive (and large scale) brush pile instruction set here. It’s pretty easy: big logs on bottom, smaller branches in the middle, twigs on top. If you have thorny plants you’ve pruned back you can lay those like a roof around the pile and offer even more protection. For maximum benefit try and get a brush pile about 5 feet on each side, but even a 3-foot side in the corner of a small yard will help the bird life. I built one in my backyard and the towhees and juncos were exploring it within hours!
For more information on bringing wildlife to your own space, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has an excellent overview here!