Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Early Bird Gets the Worm (or Brine Shrimp)?

This year marked the earliest Snowy Plover nesting season in 32 years of study.

Snowy Plovers in Monterey Bay usually begin nesting in March, but this year a pair started in February. The nest is 10 days earlier than any nest recorded in the area over the last 32 years. Biologists from Point Blue Conservation Science have monitored these small shorebirds since the late 1970s.

Early nesting may be related to climate change, as this year’s mild winter and dry spring helped the plovers 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 reduce beach size and make nests more vulnerable.

Snowy Plovers are federally listed as a threatened species, and in 2014, produced just enough young to keep the population from declining. Their diminishing numbers are largely due to predators, human disturbance and habitat degradation. Beachgoers can help protect Snowy Plovers by understanding more about the birds’ nesting habits and avoid areas where the birds are present.

Snowy Plover chicks can be hard to see on the sandy beaches where they hatch. Photo: Jenny Erbes
Chicks can be hard to see on the sandy beaches where they hatch. Photo: Jenny Erbes

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 feed on a variety of insects and brine shrimp. Chicks start flying just 30 days after hatching. This month-long period is tricky to navigate for young plovers, especially when beaches are heavily used by people and their pets.

“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,” says 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, and 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? Contact your local beach manager about starting a program to help nesting snowy plovers, or email for assistance.
A Snowy Plover in the path of a beachgoer and her dog. Photo: Jenny Erbes
A Snowy Plover in the path of a beachgoer and her dog. Photo: Jenny Erbes

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.

Learn more about Snowy Plover conservation here.