Over the years I have had the opportunity to be on many beaches, sometimes for swimming and sometimes just for walking in the great outdoors. During the course of these visits I have often seen beach signs posted, such as:
“Important Nesting Area”
“Site of Scientific Interest – Keep out!”
“Restricted Area – Rare Bird Nesting Site”
I always keep a keen eye for the said rare bird but I never actually spot them. I always seem to be out of season, or the beach is just too busy with frolicking people barbecuing themselves under an unforgiving, reflected sun.
During a visit to Sanibel Island on the Gulf Coast of Florida I came across two different signs; the first and most numerous were posted at taped-off squares of sand where elusive sea turtles had dragged their enormous bulk over talc sands, in the dead of night, to dig nests and lay eggs. The second type of sign was posted at a larger taped-off area and stated that this was a rare bird nesting site. Armed with my camera and binoculars, I patrolled the yellow caution tape like a border guard, studying every inch of sand and blade of grass in the hope of spotting the tiny Snowy Plover.
Eventually the sun pounded my head in to submission and I gave up the hunt in favour of snapping some shots of the osprey and Brown pelicans that were skimming the warm sea behind me.
As I walked back along the sand ridge just above the tide line, keeping an eye out for ornate shells to ignite my son’s imagination, I heard a peeping sound over the hiss of the waves that licked at the hot sands.
Then I saw movement. An agitated male Snowy plover (header image) runs noisily into my eye line, and then, making sure I had seen him, runs away again in the opposite direction. This is wonderful! My first Snowy plover and a beautiful little bird at that! I focus my 300 mm zoom on him and he does a little dance in my viewfinder.
Why is he dancing for me, I wonder? It is a well-known distraction technique used by birds to draw attention from a nearby nest. I take some time to scan the area, in search of a female or a scrape in the shelly sand, cradling a few speckled eggs.
Then I saw another movement on the smooth sand by the waterline. The bleached female comes into focus as she tries to sneak into my blind spot, hoping to go unnoticed. I pivot round and take a couple of photos. She notices and is camera shy so breaks in to a short run. Then I notice another movement from in the fragmented shells in front of me.
A tiny Snowy plover chick breaks in to a trot to catch up with its mum. It is not much bigger than a particularly fat bumble bee standing on long legs. It is perfectly camouflaged, disappearing into the mottled shell, sand and dry grass strewn over the beach. Young plovers can run and feed themselves within 3 hours of hatching and this little guy could have only been a few days old.
Finally it catches up with mum and the family reunites to give me a robust scolding. This is my cue to leave them in peace so I let the camera shutter click one last time to catch mum and chick. I pick my way very carefully to the water’s edge, where I could confidently walk without fear of stepping on a little camouflaged brother or sister.
Although listed by the IUCN as having a global conservation status of Least Concern, within the state of Florida the Snowy plover is in rapid decline. The familiar threat of habitat destruction and disturbance has reduced the breeding population down to between 200 and 400 pairs. At around 6 inches (15 cm) long, this ground nesting bird has nothing but camouflage to defend it against dogs, beach buggies, beach sports and all other human threats as well as the natural predators such as gulls, snakes and rodents.
The plover family on Sanibel was a delightful sighting and a reminder that even on holiday, on a busy tourist beach in high-season, in between swimmers, sunbathers, kids playing and people fishing, we can still enjoy beautiful encounters with rare and fascinating wildlife.
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