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A Day at the Beach and the Snowy Plover

by Jess Morton

reprinted from the Endangered Habitats League newsletter, with permission from the author

They’re invisible. Even when you see them, you scarcely notice their presence. Just another sandpiper, birds working the fringes of the sea. Part of the landscape. Hardly significant.

Yet snowy plovers are special. Not just in the way in which all creatures are special, but in their particular mode of living. Ever on the beach, they run in short spurts over the sand. Or fly up the strand, but only just far enough. Sometimes, undecided about what to do, they stand on one leg, stretching out the other under an extended wing.

Often, I find them standing beside kelp and other beach wrack, or hunkered down in the sand above the tide line in a slight depression left by a passing heel, gull or just the wind. Like the purloined letter, snowy plovers hide in plain sight, for they are creatures of the sand, sheltering always under the open sky.

This morning, I stood at the edge of the outer parking area by Cabrillo Beach. It was a beautiful morning, cool with a bright sun still casting long shadows and, far off the beach, the early fog lifting from a placid sea. From this spot I knew I could see the snowys, monitor how this one small population of a federally threatened species was doing.

As usual, it took a few minutes to spot them—all of forty yards away. Six birds now, up from five a week ago. I wondered where the new bird had come from. For the last several years, there has been a core group of five birds on this beach. Birds that seem at ease (mostly) with one another, perhaps related by more than just where they spend the non-breeding season.

For snowy plovers do not nest at Cabrillo. There is far too much activity for that. Runners, sunbathers, fishermen, dogs off leash, whatever. The birds can manage here as long as they are free to move. But a nest, a place in the sand undisturbed for a period of weeks, will not work here. Nor on so many other beaches up and down the West Coast. This is why snowy plovers are listed federally. People use open beaches heavily. Even isolated ones are not exempt, what with the prevalence of off-road vehicles.

Populations of snowy plovers have plummeted from the days when Ralph Hoffman, in his wonderful 1927 “Birds of the Pacific States” (still one of the finest of all field guides), called them common. But the ones that remain, are fascinating in their quiet way. Usually silent, their light brown and white plumage blends with the flotsam and sand; camouflages them. They wait motionlessly, expecting they will not be seen by the casual passerby. Waiting for you, the next time you go to their beach