Originally printed in the March 3, 2004 edition of the Illinois Valley News
Recently it was announced by the news media that large sections of Oregon’s beaches may be closed to some human activities during the spring and summer to protect an endangered species. The animal needing protection is Western Snowy Plover. This notice came as a big surprise to me. This bird is not found in the Illinois Valley and I am not aware of ever seeing one. On first glancing at the name, I assumed it was an arctic species that only visited our beaches during the winter, so I had the fun job of doing a little research.
In the list “Birds of Southern Oregon” compiled at Southern Oregon University, Snowy Plovers are listed as year round residents, usually seen on the coast. It is also a nesting resident and they are occasionally seen in the lake basins of eastern Oregon.
It is the nesting behavior which has led to their being threatened. Snowy Plovers were placed on the federal threatened species list in 1993. They prefer nesting along the beach in sand dune areas or where creeks and rivers empty into the ocean. The nests are difficult to find because they are simply depressions, or scrapes in the sand where pebbles and sticks have been removed. There is no addition of feathers, grass, moss, or anything at all, other than sand colored eggs. Therefore, the nests are easily disturbed or destroyed, often without the person or animal even knowing the nest was present.
Plovers are defined by the dictionary as small wading birds having rounded bodies, short tails and short bills. Plover, pronounced like “lover” or “cover” rather than “rover” or “clover”, is based on the word pluvia or pluvial, referring to the rainy season. Scientifically the Snowy Plover is in the family Charadriidae. This comes from the Greek word “kharadra” which means mountain stream or ravine. This family also includes Killdeer and Lapwing as well as some plovers, but not all. The genus/species name of Snowy Plover is Charadrius alexandrinus. The species name refers to Alexandria, Egypt. Snowy Plovers are found all through Europe and the Mediterranean Sea region. Carolus Linnaeus, who first described the bird, used a specimen from Egypt for his initial description and naming.
Snowy Plovers can be recognized on the beach because they are the smallest of the birds scurrying along the beach searching for food in the sand. Sandpipers and sanderlings are also small but have longer bills and more spotted appearance on their backs. Snowy Plovers have a white breast area, hence the “snowy” part of the name. They also have a solid tan to light gray back. There is the beginning of a dark ring around their neck, but it is not a complete ring, leaving a white neck area under the bill.
Snowy Plovers do not mate for life but both sexes sit on the eggs and take care of the young. When predators approach the nest, the adults will run away and feign injury, as do killdeer. Small chicks will crouch and remain motionless when approached by a predator, therefore they are easily killed if detected.
The main food source for plovers is worms, small crabs, and sand fleas. But they also feed on beetles, moths and flies. Hopefully we can keep a viable population of Snowy Plovers along the Oregon coast.