Last summer, while canoeing the Stiltcoos Trail we floated through Western Snowy Plover habitat. From our seats in the canoe, we saw several plovers along both banks of the river. The plovers on the north side, which consisted of hard-packed sand, I later identified as the Semipalmated Plover. However, the plovers on the south side, which was banked and dune like, are harder to identify. Until told otherwise, I am going to hope they were Western Snowy Plovers. We floated quietly past so as not to disturb them, then picnicked on the wet sand beach outside of their territory.
The Western Snowy Plover has had a hard time of it. This small shore bird is uniquely adapted to live and nest on the beach. However, because of increased human activity, encroaching beach grass, and urban development, nesting areas for the plover have steadily decreased. Their populations have gone so low that they are now listed as threatened as part of the Federal Endangered Species Act.
If you’ve spent much time on the dunes in the summer, you’ve no doubt seen the signs prohibiting access to some areas from March 15 to September 15. Eight critical plover nesting areas have been identified in Oregon and five of them occur in the Suislaw National Forrest — primarily the Oregon Dunes. Prohibiting access to the nesting sites is important as Western Snowy Plovers make their nests in shallow depressions lined with beach debris and their eggs look like sand. Once the chicks hatch they crouch near objects like kelp and driftwood to hide from predators. In all, the nests, eggs, and chicks are easy to miss and people step on them by accident.
At the same time, life is hard for the plovers and expending unnecessary energy — like escaping from cavorting dogs — can mean death for both them and their young. Adult plovers will also leave their nest for long periods if disturbed by human presence, dogs, or even a flying kite. The longer they are off their nest, the more susceptible the eggs and chicks are to getting cold or being eaten by a predator.
The Oregon Dunes stretch for 40 miles between Florence and Coos Bay. With that much area, it is easy to explore and enjoy the Dunes, while at the same time respecting the needs of the Western Snowy Plover.
The Forest Service provides these recommendations for Sharing the Shore with the plovers:
- Respect the posted restrictions in nesting areas.
- Stay on the trails.
- Since 2013, dogs and kites have been prohibited from both dry and wet sand beaches within most Plover nesting areas (see the Forest Service website for detailed information).
- Pick up trash, which will attract predators like ravens and crows that will also make a meal out of a plover egg.
- Enjoy beach activities in areas that aren’t home to the Western Snowy Plover.
- Remember, you, your vehicle, dog, and even kite may be enough to put eggs and young birds at risk.
If you’re headed out to the beach or dunes this summer, I hope you’ll watch for the signs and share the shore with the Western Snowy Plovers.