Litter and beach grass across Clam Beach negatively influence snowy plover habitat. | Photo by Cosette McCave

Snowy plovers fight for protection

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Humans act as primary threat to the endangered bird species

A snowy plover egg sits in a small burrow on Clam Beach. A raven creeps up on the lonely egg and pecks it in half. The scavenger slurps up the egg’s contents and flies away before the father arrives back at the nest.

Alexa DeJoannis, President of the Redwood Region Audubon Society, gave a speech on the endangered snowy plover Friday Jan. 18 at the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center. She began studying birds in southern California with the burrowing owls. DeJoannis later moved up to Humboldt County and applied to Humboldt State University for a master’s program. DeJoannis graduated with a Master’s in Wildlife. While there, her ornithology professor, Mark Colwell, introduced DeJoannis to researching snowy plovers. She has been in love with them ever since.

“I only study cute animals,” DeJoannis joked.

Many people use nature as a getaway from their stressful lives. The Humboldt Dunes are a great example of a peaceful place to take a stroll. The dunes are also an important place in our environment. Her speech discussed how the dunes slow wind and break storms when they crash in from the ocean. Dunes protect our roads and homes from these weather conditions.

Snowy plovers also rely on the dunes as their home. They dig holes in the sand to use as nests. Since snowy plovers are semi-migratory, they spend a lot of time at their nests. DeJoannis emphasized how snowy plovers rely on their eyes to find food and watch for predators. The beach is their preferred habitat since it’s nice and open. Unfortunately, European beach grass is taking over their ecosystem. Snowy plovers are being blinded by this invasive plant species, making them vulnerable to predation.

DeJoannis also discussed how people have a huge impact on the endangered snowy plover. Human litter has helped corvids, which are birds of the crow family thrive. Beaches became an attractive home for corvids such as ravens and crows because of this litter issue. Those large numbers of clever birds then began attacking the plover nests. Corvids found that a snowy plover egg is much tastier than the trash they were eating.

“Everybody deserves protection from predators,” DeJoannis explained.

Many nests have been destroyed by people not watching their steps. Snowy plovers nest right on the sand and expertly disguise their nests from predators. Therefore, many people are unaware that these creatures are right beneath their feet. People can look for small scoops in the sand with speckled eggs laid inside.

Snowy plovers like to have shells or wood around the nest to distract a predator’s eye from their eggs. It is important to keep an eye out for snowy plovers themselves. Plovers have grey, brown backs and tops of their head with a white belly all year round. Their plumage then changes during breeding season, Feb. to Sept. This is when they develop a black stripe above their eye and on their necks. These stripes are usually more pronounced on the male snowy plovers who are trying to impress a female.

“That’s evening wear,” DeJoannis said.

Restoration efforts have been focused on pulling invasive grass. Native species of plants like beach strawberry are planted. Snowy plovers can easily see over shorter native plants. Fences have been put up around plover nesting sites during breeding season to prevent the destruction of plover nests. People can also listen to experts and become educated on the issue themselves. If humans work together to protect the little guys, the snowy plover may just have a chance.

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