At first, it was almost impossible to see the Snowy Plovers as they ran along the waves ahead of me. I was walking along the surf on Okaloosa Island, part of the Emerald Coast on Florida’s Panhandle. With their pale tan and white plumage, the birds seemed to melt into the sugar-white sand beach.
The landscape around the birds was breathtaking. The water glowed a mesmerizing green, deepening to a cobalt blue as the depth increased. Sea oats waved in the breeze from atop the dunes that bordered the beach, creating an undulating view as far as I could see. Florida may be flat, but the clouds that periodically built up and then dissipated created a constantly shifting horizon. This seascape was rapidly becoming my favorite place to bird.
When I spotted the plover silhouettes again, feeding at the edge of the water, I followed behind at a safe distance, watching them forage for flies, beetles, amphipods and more. Two were directly ahead of me and, when they momentarily halted their frenzied activity, I raised my camera to snap a few photos before they were off again.
As I played the photos back on my screen, I saw pops of color in the photos I hadn’t noticed before: both Snowy Plovers were sporting bright bands on their legs. I looked back at the plovers with new eyes – they had high-tailed it up over the surf line and were on their way to the dunes that are so iconic to the island. Though there were only two of them, these plovers represented critical scientific data.
Snowy Plovers are small birds, reaching less than seven inches long and weighing between 33 and 53 grams. They are found year-round on the Florida Panhandle and the Pacific Coast. They also breed in some interior states and interior Mexico, and then winter on Mexico’s coasts, the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, and other coastal areas of Florida. Estimates of their global population ranges from 18,000 to 25,000 individual birds, with 200 to 250 breeding pairs in Florida.
Because they prefer to breed along beaches, Snowy Plovers have long faced nesting competition from human development and encroachment. Because of the loss of their nesting habitat, and subsequent population declines, the Snowy Plover was listed on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which indicates “the species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action.” Though their range is large, they are one of the rarest North American shorebirds.
The declining number of Snowy Plovers make each of those tiny bands that much more important. The colors and placement of the bands indicated a very specific, individual bird, banded either as a chick or as an adult before being released into the wild. By carefully recording the bands and their placement in my photos, I was preparing to submit a key scientific observation.
Bird banding has long been a scientific undertaking. The idea is fairly simple: permitted researchers capture birds, placing bands with unique identification numbers or colored patterns on the birds’ legs or wings. The birds are set free after only a few minutes, and whenever they (and their bands) are observed in the future, scientists find out how long it has been since they were banded, where they were located in subsequent observations, and other important information. Compiling observations, also known as “encounters,” of individual birds over entire species can produce dynamic range and population data, both of which play a role in conservation efforts around the country and around the world.
Back at a computer, I punched up the government band reporting site and quickly input my data, including where I found the birds, the band combinations, my species identification, and the photos. The information was sent directly to a database and, even better, to a Florida Park Service researcher who worked with the Snowy Plovers. A few hours later, Raya Pruner, an Environmental Specialist, wrote back to me with specific information about my banded birds (for I thought of them as mine now).
Back in 2014, one of my birds had been banded on Shell Island – part of St. Andrew’s State Park. It had made it through its first year of life, and was spotted again in January of 2015 at Eglin Air Force base before I recorded the bands in August. I could close my eyes and picture all the beaches my bird had visited, and it felt incredible to trace its movements on a map.
Since 2008, researchers in Florida have been searching for Snowy Plover nests, which are made up of small depressions in the sand that are lined with vegetation, shells, pebbles or other small materials. Each female bird lays two to six eggs and, once they hatch, the chicks are incredibly active, already able to find food without help from their parents. These chicks are capable of moving great distances in search of optimal foraging locations. In fact, based on observations of banded chicks, they can move up to 13 km within days of hatching.
“Chicks are usually banded on hatch day; if not on hatch day, then the first time they are encountered in the field,” Pruner reports.
To band these tiny chicks, which are about the size of a ping pong ball and weigh only 4 to 6 grams, Pruner and her colleagues must carefully scoop them up off the ground. With special instruments, such as banding pliers and small metal spoons, they place the bands on their thin legs, adding the multicolored bracelets that are made specifically for this species of plover. The chicks’ legs will not grow much wider, so bands that fit now will fit throughout their lives. Once a band is in place, a quick zap with a soldering iron welds it shut. After the addition of tape that matches the unique color combination, the bird is ready to be set free. The same steps are repeated for every banded bird.
Banding is a delicate process, Pruner tells me, and with a laugh she describes the plover chicks as “little fluff balls with legs.”
As encounter data is collected across the Florida Snowy Plover population, a picture of plover range, age and population dynamics emerges. For example, though researchers are only in the preliminary stages of data analysis, they have found differences in survival rates and migration habits for Florida Snowy Plovers compared with the Pacific and interior populations. For one, the vast majority of Florida birds are non-migratory. As Pruner explains, “About 75% of all banded Snowies are staying for the winter at their natal sites and for those banded as adults they are staying at the sites where they breed.”
These non-migratory habits are in turn influencing survival rates. While other populations live an average of only three years, the Florida study birds banded since 2008 live an average of five years. In fact, as Pruner added, “Our oldest Snowy Plover turned seventeen this year! He is the world’s oldest known Snowy Plover.” As researchers continue to band, they will learn more and more about the survival rates of Florida plovers, and how they contrast with other populations around the country.
This data is critical for making conservation and management decisions regarding the Snowy Plovers, now and especially in the future, when climate change and sea level rise threaten their beach nesting habitat. Certain sites, such as St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, have acted as “baby makers,” and chicks from these areas have dispersed to other breeding grounds around Florida. Such productive sites could be given special protections in order to aid the nesting plovers.
As citizen scientists, birders and wildlife observers play an unparalleled role in amassing encounter data on the Snowy Plovers and other shorebirds across the United States and around the world. Since 1960, over 800,000 shorebirds have been banded as part of research projects. However, of all these banded birds, only 15,000 were observed again, representing less than 2% of the total. Because of this, everyone should realize that each individual observation is important and report it as completely as possible.
When I explore Okaloosa Island’s beaches, I may enjoy gazing at the beautiful scenery, but I always have my eyes peeled for Snowy Plovers running with the waves. Whether you bird all the time or are interested in protecting this rare species, you can hit the beaches and start recording what you find today!
For more on Snowy Plovers along the Florida Panhandle, see Voices for Biodiversity gallery here.
Erika Zambello is a writer, birder, and photographer living and working along the Emerald Coast of Florida. She has a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University, specializing in ecosystem science and conservation. Her love of the outdoors was inspired by a childhood in Maine, and she returned for her National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2015-2016. She currently works as the Marine Economic and Tourist Resource Development Coordinator for Okaloosa County, where she manages ecotourism projects. Erika believes in the power of communicating conservation, and she has written for BirdWatching Daily, 10000birds.com, Florida State Parks, the Conservation Fund, Triangle Land Conservancy, the Maine Sportsman, the Bangor Daily News, and more. Her passion for exploration was the inspiration for founding both One World, Two Feet and TerraComm. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @a_day_in_the_landscape, and at zambellophotography.com.