The lack of posts this summer was partially due to birds (and multiple jobs…)
But one species in particular was allotted a significant amount of my time both this summer and last summer: the Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus). Ah yes, the infamous plovers of Humboldt County. Chances are you already know this saga if you live in this area (or if you have been so fortunate to have asked me about it….). But for those of you who don’t, you’re in for a treat. Or at least you’re in for a long story and some adorable photos. So stick with me.
I had the pleasure of helping to monitor populations of snowy plovers throughout the beaches of Humboldt County. Being particularly cute and federally threatened, I had great incentive to find them. But finding these little guys is no small task. Plovers are shorebirds, and spend their days poking around the sand and beach debris looking for small invertebrates to eat. Snowy plovers are sand colored and maybe the size of a tennis ball. A SAND COLORED TENNIS BALL ON A BEACH. The first few times I went out to look for them, I wasn’t convinced they were real. I didn’t see any of these birds that were supposedly running around and foraging in front of us, as my coworkers were listing off individual leg band combos and behavioral observations….
I’m screwed, I thought, I don’t think I’ll be able to do this job…
But I soon discovered that all those hours spent dwelling over Where’s Waldo and I Spy as a child would pay off.
Finding something takes not just a keen eye, but patience. At some point in the first couple weeks of looking for these birds, it clicked. I could see them. It was like that part in Hook where Peter begins to believe in Neverland and then all the food appears on the table and they proceed to have a food fight (RIP Robin Williams)! But I digress. Hours of observation had granted me a search image – all those positive observations and identifications had taught my brain what to look for to find them. It wasn’t just going out there and blatantly looking for plovers; I now knew what shape to look for, what color, what sort of movement… looking for specific characteristics that would narrow down the field of debris I was looking at, thereby saving me time and effort. Dwell on this for a moment, because we will talk about it again in the sense that it is most commonly used – for animal predators.
I told you there would be cute photos.
Notice the little colored bands on the female’s legs? No, she isn’t wearing these to impress the male with her fancy jewelry. Most of the birds in our population have individual color band combos so we can tell them apart, and see who’s where, who’s doing what, who’s breeding with who…. It becomes a grand soap opera, really. It also allows us (in a non-scientific way) to get to know these individuals, and recognize their unique behaviors and personalities.
At this point you’re probably wondering why I’m rambling on about these little birds at all. Why are they special? Why do they get neat little ankle bracelets? Well, I mentioned earlier that they are federally listed as a threatened species. There are two distinct sub-populations of Snowy Plovers. An interior population (doing just fine), and the Western population which includes all of our birds – this population is not doing fine, and is the one that is federally threatened. Their numbers have been declining on the west coast mainly because of nest predation – when their eggs or chicks have been killed or eaten by a predator. Here in Humboldt County we are facing a cunning and impressive predator: the Common Raven (Corvus corax). Now, ravens have always been around. They are part of countless folk tales in North America and beyond, and can be found in almost every habitat type in the world. They are renowned for their intelligence and problem-solving skills, and are quite possibly one of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom.
Ravens and plovers sharing space is nothing new; the problem is in the influx of these predators in recent years.
Corvids – those birds in the crow and raven family – are all opportunists. They like our food and our waste, and they know how to take advantage of it in order to thrive. More people around the coast means more opportunities and resources for these birds to utilize, thereby increasing the number of these birds in the area. More ravens means more nest predators for plovers. Remember when we talked about search images? Ravens, being the smarty pants that they are, are quite adept at figuring out where food is. They can often acquire search images for different sort of nests or creatures that make tasty and easy meals. Despite their cryptic nature, plovers are no exception.
Plover nests are notoriously hard to find, but somehow, ravens manage it on a regular basis. A plover “nest” is really more of a little cup in the ground that they scrape out, and then proceed to decorate. Males will make many of these “scrapes” and decorate them by flicking little bits of shells or kelp onto them, and then a female will choose the one she likes best to lay her eggs in. Some birds like a minimalist style, and others will incorporate as many shells as they can find. The plovers pretty much solely rely on camouflage to protect them and their nests, and there is little they can do once a raven discovers a nest. Thankfully, plovers are persistent, and will continue to try and breed after a nest is failed.
So what can we do? There is hope for these little guys. In some areas, raven populations are being controlled in order to give plovers a fighting chance. Lethal removal is a last resort, but can significantly impact sensitive populations like these. In many areas, respecting beach closures and recreation restrictions during breeding season can help them too. If nothing else, at least properly dispose of your trash when you are out and about, or even pick up trash that isn’t yours (gasp!) when you’re on the beach too.
Go ahead. Be a plover lover.