An early start could be beneficial for this shorebird species threatened by sea level rise and storm surges, but they need the help of beach goers.

April 16, 2015, Monterey - Historically, March has marked the start of the Snowy Plover nesting season in Monterey Bay, but this year a pair started nesting in February.  This nest is 10 days earlier than any nest recorded in the Monterey Bay area over the last 32 years, according to biologists from Point Blue Conservation Science who have been closely monitoring these small shorebirds since the late 1970’s.

Early nesting may be related to climate change, as this year’s mild winter and dry spring are allowing for plovers to get a head start on the breeding season. However, in the long term, the effects of climate change could negatively impact Snowy Plover populations, which nest on sandy, open beaches. Sea level rise, with increasing wave heights and storm surges, may narrow beaches making nests more vulnerable.

Yet even with this year’s promising early start, plovers need your help. Snowy Plovers are federally listed as a threatened species, and in 2014 produced just enough young to keep the population from declining, largely due to predators, human disturbance, and habitat degradation.  Bay Area residents can help these birds safely raise their young by practicing plover-friendly beach use.   

Snowy Plover chicks are usually raised by their fathers.  Once they hatch from a nearly invisible, well-camouflaged nest, fathers and their ping-pong ball sized babies move back and forth from sand dunes to the water’s edge, to find insects and grow to adulthood.  Chicks start flying just 30 days after hatching out of their tiny eggs!  This month-long period is tricky to navigate for young plovers, especially when beaches are heavily used by people and their pets. Most beachgoers have never even seen one, except for on the children’s artwork that adorns informational signs announcing their presence.  So how does one enjoy the beach, while also supporting the nesting plovers in the area?

“This tiny sparrow-sized shorebird struggles to survive on our beaches – dodging predators, people, dogs, and soon may be grappling with the effects of climate change, including shrinking beach habitat from sea-level rise and wave scouring from strong storms,” said Point Blue Waterbird Ecologist Carleton Eyster.  “But people can help protect plovers by following a few simple beach going tips.”

Tips to help protect nesting Snowy Plovers:
1. Watch for signs, stay out of closed areas to avoid crushing nests and disturbing chicks.
2. On dune beaches, walk along the wet sand, to avoid stepping on nests and to give chicks ample space to feed.
3. Keep dogs on leash and only bring them to beaches that allow dogs.
4. Don’t chase plovers, or any birds, resting on the beach. Teach your kids how to walk around resting birds.
5. Get involved!  Are there Snowy Plovers nesting at a beach near your home?  Do you have questions, curiosities, ideas, energy to help?  Contact your beach owner or manager about starting a program to help nesting snowy plovers, or email pointblue@pointblue.org for assistance.

Snowy Plovers, like many species that live on the coast are in need of protection. Their habitat is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and to human impacts like development and beach recreation. They are a true ‘canary in the coal mine’ signaling changes in the health of their environment.  Point Blue’s decades of research on the Snowy Plover has helped to inform protection efforts for this species and the healthy beach ecosystem throughout the Pacific Coast.

Photos of Snowy Plovers are available by request to Melissa Pitkin: mpitkin@pointblue.org.