Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Beach Parties vs. the Plovers

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Beach Parties vs. the Plovers

Article excerpt

THREATENED: Birds' nearly invisible nests dot our shores as weather warms

Every year at this time, a band of plucky little birds gathers near Siesta Public Beach to mate and nest on the sand. The birds, known as snowy plovers and listed as "threatened" in Florida, face incredible odds.

Tropical storms wash over their nests. Fire ants burrow into their eggs. Crows and gulls pick off their thumb-sized chicks.

Human activity poses an even greater threat. The peak of nesting season coincides with the July 4 weekend, when tens of thousands of beachgoers descend on the No. 1 beach in the country for boat races and partying.

Plovers (rhymes with lovers) are particularly vulnerable because their nests are little more than cups scratched into the sand, camouflaged to the point of invisibility. Their eggs take 40 days to hatch, an incubation period fraught with danger from errant footsteps or dogs running loose or people who do not care.

At one time, as many as 10,000 snowy plovers nested on Southwest Florida beaches. Those days are long gone. Biologists now estimate the state's population at some 200, most of which live in the Panhandle.

That means the colonies on Siesta and Lido represent about 10 percent of the entire population of snowy plovers in Florida.

Fortunately for the birds, every year at this time a band of equally plucky humans gathers at the beach to guard them until nesting season ends in August.

Sarasota Audubon volunteers, led by Bob Luckner, Allan Worms and Dick Miles, stake out nesting areas, erect signs, patrol the grounds and distribute brochures entitled "Sharing the Shore with Sarasota's Beach-Nesting Birds."

Although least terns, Wilson's plovers and black skimmers also nest along the beach, the snowy plovers steal the show.

"They're not only beautiful, but they have unusual behavior. For instance, they don't feed their young, but they protect them," Luckner says. "We have to take care of them now, or they'll become extinct, which would be a shame."

"If you come out in the summer when the chicks hatch, they will blow your mind," says Worms, a retired University of Kentucky wildlife biologist. "They're very endearing. They run around and disappear in the sand. They are a unique bird."

As plovers pair up for the season, they "practice" making nests by scraping the sand. During the incubation period, they sit on eggs not to warm them, but to shade them from the sun.

The roped-off buffers help, because the birds are skittish and will abandon their nest if humans and other animals get too close too often.

"It's bad when they're flushed. You get hard-boiled eggs," Luckner says.

When the chicks hatch, they have to feed themselves. The parents teach them within an hour or two to forage for insects and other organisms. The parents also teach their chicks to flatten themselves in the sand at the first whiff of danger. …

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