Gregory Taylor is Audubon's 2017 Sarasota Shorebird Monitoring and Stewardship Coordinator. He surveys beach-nesting birds on Siesta and Lido Keys and organizes volunteer bird stewards to help protect the birds during their vulnerable nesting cycles.
It’s the beginning of the nesting season for Snowy Plovers at Siesta Beach in Sarasota. Four pairs of plovers (and a single, unpaired male) forage and scamper along the white sand that stretches between the vegetated dunes and the water. They congregate on the white, sandy beach in February and March in the hopes of raising families here. For the past several weeks they have been busily establishing territories and searching for the best spots in which to make their nests.
These are their stories, and the struggles they face, as the summer begins and the countdown to autumn commences.
This plover pair lives in front of the main entrance to the public portion of Siesta Beach. This area is extremely popular, and can be thronged with beachgoers on weekends. Snowy Plovers typically do not spend much time on this part of the beach, so it is surprising that this pair has stalwartly stayed here. Yet stayed they have, foraging along the edges of the grassy dunes and, when they need a break, resting within people’s footprints in the sand. When resting, they remain absolutely still, becoming nearly invisible against the white expanse around them. They only move in order to avoid oncoming people who likely haven’t spotted the birds.
It remains unclear whether the Renegades will nest here. My volunteers and I have yet to see them scraping (testing out a spot to decide whether to nest there). With so much disturbance, it would be very risky to lay eggs on the public beach. But we will continue watching and waiting, and if they do decide to throw caution to the wind and nest right in the middle of the action, among the volleyballs and frisbees, we will be there to keep an eye on them.
Having settled down in a protected area of the beach, this pair of plovers has claimed a piece of prime real estate. This one-acre area of dunes, owned by the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, is closed to the public. It therefore offers the plovers a place where they don’t have to worry about being disturbed by people walking to and from the beach.
Unfortunately, disturbance is not the only obstacle that the Snowy Plovers must overcome if they are to have a successful breeding season. As the Gatsbys recently found out, there are also predators. This pair laid three eggs over the course of a week, and then began devotedly incubating them. But just days after the third egg was laid, the entire clutch disappeared. The predator left no footprints or other signs, but it may have been a ghost crab or a crow, two of the most common nest predators on Florida’s gulf coast. Crows, being attracted to human food and refuse left on the beach, are “human-subsidized” predators: they are more abundant on the beach than they otherwise would be if humans were absent. This has led to crows becoming a significant problem for beach-nesting birds in recent years.
In contrast, ghost crab numbers do not increase with the presence of humans. However, the crabs may take advantage of human disturbance, which can cause plovers to flush from their nests, leaving the eggs vulnerable to the ghost crabs.
Fortunately for the Gatsbys, it is still early in the nesting season. They may very well re-nest, and there is always a chance of succeeding the next time around.
Not all plover parents are equal. When we found this pair’s nest in front of a row of catamarans, we had a feeling they might be first-time parents. The masts of the boats stuck straight up all around, offering perfect perches for crows. The eggs lasted two days before they disappeared -- and just like the Gatsbys’ nest, no sign of the predator remained.
But the Newbies’ story doesn’t end there. A few days after losing their eggs, another pair of Snowy Plovers showed up in the Newbies’ territory -- the Auroras, from the northern end of the beach. The two pairs skirmished, chasing each other along the shore, vying for control of that stretch of beach. In the end, one pair won -- but we don’t know which. Because most of Florida’s Snowy Plovers are not tagged, we are unable to track individuals. Tagging is important in helping us to learn about a species’ population dynamics and movements.
The Snowy Plovers of Siesta Beach are off to a rough start, but the summer is young and full of possibility. We have many methods for helping the plovers, from roping off parts of the dunes to removing refuse from the beach. And of course, I always have my volunteers. Having more eyes on the beach is invaluable in monitoring the plovers. The information that the volunteers gather -- such as the birds’ location, nesting status, and interactions with people and predators -- help us to protect the plovers.
If you are interested in volunteering to help monitor and protect shorebirds, please email email@example.com.