With a wide yet localized breeding distribution in western North America, the Snowy Plover is of conservation concern due to habitat losses. Territorial during the breeding season, male Snowy Plovers are usually more aggressive, although females will also defend against intruders.
Snowy Plovers begin breeding at age one. High tides, flooding, inclement weather, and predators are all threats to breeding Snowy Plovers. They will renest multiple times after failures in a single season, and have been known to live over 15 years in the wild.
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Description of the Snowy Plover
The Snowy Plover is a small plover with sandy brown upperparts, white underparts, a black bill and legs, and a black forehead patch, ear patch, and “shoulder” patch. Length: 6 in. Wingspan: 17 in.
Black patches are duller than on males.
Seasonal change in appearance
Paler over all.
Juveniles lack black patches.
Beaches and sand flats.
Insects and crustaceans.
Forages by walking and running.
Breeds in portions of the central and western U.S. where suitable habitat is located. Resident in parts of California, Oregon, Washington, and the Gulf Coast. Winters in Texas and Mexico. Also occurs in South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Populations declining.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Semipalmated Plover.
Snowy Plovers are known as Kentish Plovers in Europe.
Snowy Plovers often gather in flocks during the winter.
“Tu-wheet” and “churr” calls are given.
- Piping Plover
Piping Plovers have mostly orange bills and orange legs and feet.
- Semipalmated Plover
Semipalmated Plovers are much darker above.
The nest is a scrape in the ground.
Eggs: 3 – 7
Color: Buff with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 26-32 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Snowy Plover
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Snowy Plover – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
CHARADRIUS NIVOSUS NIVOSUS (Cassin)
The charming little snowy plover of the Pacific coast is the counterpart of our familiar piping plover, found in similar haunts, perhaps even tamer and more confiding, but not equal to our eastern bird in melody of voice. It is a child of the sand, with which its colors blend so well that when crouched in some hollow or against some bleached piece of driftwood or half buried clam shell it seems to be just one more of the numerous, inconspicuous objects which one passes unnoticed on the beach. Its favorite haunts are the broad expanses of flat, dry sand above the ordinary wash of the tides on ocean beaches. Such places are usually strewn more or less thickly with shells, pebbles, and various bits of debris, among which the little plover, or its eggs and young, are surprisingly inconspicuous. Here it was born and has always lived; here it woos its mate and rears its little family; and hence it seldom strays except to feed along the water’s edge on the ocean beach or on the bare flats along some near-by tidal creek. There are, however, a few places in the ]nterior where the snowy plover has been found along the shores of salt or alkaline lakes. But it is mainly a bird of the ocean beaches.
Spring: The snowy plover wanders north in the spring as far as the coast of Washington. D. E. Brown tells me that he saw it in Grays Harbor County from April 7 to 13, 1918, and from May 14 to 16, 1914, in Pacific County. But apparently no one has ever found it breeding there, although several good observers have looked for it.
Nesting.: The nesting grounds of the snowy plover have been briefly described above, but a better description is contained in the following quotation from W. Lee Chambers (1904)
The nesting ground is a white sandy cape or narrow strip of land between Ballona Swamp and the ocean about 2 miles long and 200 yards wide. This place during the fall high tides is completely flooded and deposits of small rocks and broken shells are left there. Among these the plovers place tbeir nests. On approaching it one may be attracted by noticing the little fellows running about on the sand In front of him or occasionally flying in low, wide circles uttering a pleading whistle so characteristic of this species. This whistle I have iearned Is a danger signal that I am near their nests, and on looking over the ground carefully I may be able to notice fine bird tracks in the white sand or in the patches of white sand between the shells and rocks.
In going over the ground carefully where the tracks are the thickest a nest will generally be found. Sometimes the birds will build among the small rocks, where the tracks can not be seen, and here the eggs are safe, as their coloration protects them, for they look exactly like small rocks. The nests are, as a rule, found by a mark of some kind, a bone of some animal, a small dead weed, or a bit of driftwood, and are slight depressions In the sand. Some are completely lined with broken shells or fish bones with the eggs pointed toward the center, very close together and about half burled in the nest lining. A pair of birds will build several nests during the season and use only one, for I have found nests all fixed up and completely surrounded with tracks. This I noticed especially in 1901, for I found about three times as many unused nests as used ones. During this season I visited Ballona about three times a week and gave the birds careful study.
While J. Eugene Law was helping me to get acquainted with the birds of southern California, we spent a delightful day, May 29, 1914, among these birds with Mr. Chambers at Del Rey, Los Angeles County. This was once a typical nesting place of this species, a broad stretch of sand flats above an ocean beach, backed by sand dunes and bordered on the inner side by a sluggish stream meandering through a marsh and some brackish lagoons. But civilization was encroaching on the plover’s paradise, for several cottages had been built on the beach and it was much frequented. Some four pairs of snowy plover still clung to their ancestral home; we found three nests with three eggs each and one empty nest, in open spaces among the houses. The nests were mostly on little mounds of sand and scattered pebbles or among low sand dunes covered with low weeds and vines. They were deep hollows in the sand, profusely lined with finely broken white and pink shells, among scattered small stones, bits of wood, or other rubbish. Amid such surroundings the eggs were not easily detected; but we could usually locate the nests by the multitude of little footprints in the sand converging toward the nest. All but one of the birds were shy and sneaked off the nests before we drew near. They watched us from a distance, running about very swiftly, whistling their soft, plaintive notes of protest. One bird was very tame; I gradually walked up very close to her and finally photographed her within 3 or 4 feet. This gentle and confiding little bird, after running about with drooping wings and spread tail, came slowly up to the nest and settled down on the eggs right in front of me, spreading out her plumage to cover her treasures. As a reward for her bravery we did not disturb her further.
Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) write that:
In the vicinity of the salt works near Alvarado, on the Alameda County shore of San Francisco Bay, L. R. Reynolds found that a great many pairs had In the summer of 1914 selected nesting sites on the dike separating the salt ponds. The workmen, In traversing the dikes with wheelbarrows, reported having broken many eggs.
Eggs: The snowy plover ordinarily lays three eggs, but often only two. Mr. Chambers (1904) says that out of 44 sets which he collected 11 were of two eggs and 33 were of three. The two egg sets were complete, as he left them long enough to make sure. The eggs were laid about three days apart. The extended nesting season, April to July, would seem to indicate that two broods are raised, but I believe that this has not been positively proven. The eggs are short, ovate in shape, and without gloss. They are colored to match the sand: ” olive buff” to “pale olive buff,” or “cartridge buff.” They are more or less evenly but not thickly covered with small spots, dots, or little scrawls of black and a few small inconspicuous spots of “pallid mouse gray.” The measurements of 51 eggs average 30.4 by 22.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes lneasure 32.5 by 23.5, 30 by 24, and 28 by 20.5 millimeters.
Young: Apparently both sexes share the duties of incubation and care of the young, at -which they prove devoted parents. When the young are approached the parents use all the artifices known to similar species to distract the attention of the intruder, fluttering along as if both wings and legs were helpless, or grovelling in the sand as if wounded. Such tactics often succeed in fooling a dog and enticing him far enough away but to human beings they are only an incentive to look carefully for the tiny balls of down that, obedient to their parents’ note of warning, are crouched immovable and well-nigh invisible in some little hollow in the sand or under or against some object on the beach. And there the little one remains “frozen” until touched or until sure that he is observed; when, presto, off he goes, running at a marvelous pace on his strong little legs. We watch him for some time as he scampers away for a long distance until suddenly he vanishes; then, unless we have marked him down exactly and kept our eyes on the spot, we had better give up hope ~f finding him again.
Plumages: The downy young snowy plover is quite unlike the young piping plover. The entire upper parts are pale buff, “cream buff” to “cartridge buff,” mixed with grayish white. The crown, back, rump, wings, and thighs are distinctly and quite evenly spotted with black. The under parts are pure white.
In the juvenal plumage the crown, mantle, rump, cheeks, and a space in front of the wing are “drab,” or “light drab,” with a pinkish buff tinge on the tips of the feathers; the forehead and all under parts are white. The first winter plumage is similar, without the huffy edgings.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in late summer and fall, and a partial prenuptial molt in early spring. Males in nuptial plumage have the crown and nape “pinkish buff,” and a broad band above the forehead, an auricular patch and a patch in front of the wing abruptly clear black. In females the crown is pale drab, like the back, and the dark markings are more restricted and more brownish. In winter the sexes are alike, similar to the spring female, but the dark markings are even duller, about the same tone as the back.
Food: Snowy plover feed mainly on the sandy beaches, foraging on the wet sand and at the surf line, where they are expert at dodging the incoming waves and very lively, running up and down the beach as the waves advance or recede. Here they often forage in compact bunches, picking up small crustaceans, marine worms, or other minute marine organisms. Inland they feed along the muddy or alkaline shores of ponds or lakes, on various insects, such as beetles or flies. Dr. A. K. Fisher (1893) says:
This handsome little plover was observed by the writer on the shores of Owens Lake, near Keeler, May 30 to June 4, where it was common in small flocks of 5 or 10 on the alkaline flats which border the lake. Like most other birds In the vicinity, it fed extensively, if not exclusively, on a species of small fly (Rphydra FLiQnR Say), which was found in immense masses near the edge of the lake. Many of these sxvarms of flies were four or five layers deep and covered an area of 15 or 20 square feet. Some Idea can be formed of the inexhaustible supply of food which this insect furnishes for birds when it is known that colonies of equal size occurred at close intervals In suitable localities all around the lake, which has a shore line of between 40 and 50 miles.
Behavior: Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) write:
When searching for food they move about a great deal, with a distinct trot, and on occasion have been seen to hop along on one leg as Torrey has observed sanderlings to do at Santa Barbara. Their movements are rapid and their strides etceedingly long. At Netarts Bay, Oreg., Jewett says that when running fast the strides of one of these birds proved to measure 6 inches. One of the birds will start, run S or 4 feet, and stop suddenly, the whole performance occupying but a second or two. There is an abrupt upward tilt of the body at intervals, and ~vlth the return movement the quavering note Is often uttered. In flight the birds may travel in open formation, or closely massed, and the flight may be either direct, or in zigzag course as with the small sandpipers. Both In flight, and on the ground, their chunky appearance helps to distinguish them from the small snndpipers. They are quite tame and xviii usually permit a close approach, preferring apparently to trot along In front of the observer, or off to one side, rather than to take wing.
Florence Merriam Bailey (1916) observes:
Besides the large waders, the godwits, willets, and surf birds, there were flocks of little sanderlings and snowy plover, looking like small chickens on the beach among the bigger birds. The snoxvy plover, plump, squat little fellows with head mark~igs that suggest wide foreheads and backs that match the sand on which they love to sun thcmselves, when feeding on the beach would hurry back ahead of the foam, their short legs making them more in danger of getting wet than the long-legged godwits. When resting, the plump little sandy-backed fellows kept by themselves. Sometimes as I walked along above the line of the tide, bits of sand would take legs ahead of mae, the brown forms that squatted in my path having been entirely overlooked. When I saw them before they got up, and stopped to talk to them, the confiding little fellows flatteringly sat still or went on fixing their feathers, looking very comfortable in the warm sand. To me they seemed the most winning and attractive of all the lovely little sandpipers. When they were surprised and ran from me they did it in a comical crouching way as if knowing their hacks were sand color and trying to hide their black legs and plump white bodies. Their habit of bobbing the head Is doubtless usefUl at times, but the motion often catches the eye when without It they would not be separated from the sand.
Voice: Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) say: “Snowy plover are exceptionally quiet birds; but at times a low, guttural, trilling note, cr-r-r-r or pe-e-e-et, may be given, and when the vicinity of the nest is invaded the birds give utterance to relatively loud cries.~~
Field marks: They also give the best recognition marks, as follows: The snowy plover is readily distinguished from most other shore birds occurring in California by its very small size (total length, 6: I inches). It Is but slightly larger than our smallest shore hird, the least sandpiper. The Chunky appearance, short, thick bill (which is shorter than the head), white collar around hind neck, uniform pale drab upper surface, pure white under surface, and conspicuous dark-brown or black patches at the sides of the breast are all useful as aids to recognition. ~’rom the killdeer, and the semipalinated and Wilson plovers, the snowy Is distinguished by its lack of complete black or dark-brown breast band and by its smaller size, and from the least and western sandplpers, and from the sanderling, by its white collar around hind neck and by the dark patches at the sides of Its chest; and, in spring, from the last three named birds by the absence of mixed coloration on its upper surface.
Winter: The snowy plover is a permanent resident throughout the southern part of its range, though perhaps the same individuals may not be present all the year round. It winters as far north as San Francisco, but more abundantly from Santa Barbara southward, where its numbers are increased in winter by migrants from farther north and where flocks of 50 or more are often seen.
Range: T he United States (principally the western part), the West Indies, and Central and South America.
Breeding range: The snowy plover breeds north probably to Washington (Willapa Harbor); Utah (Bear River and Farmington); southern Kansas (Comanche County); Oklahoma (Cimarron River); Mississippi (Horn Island); Florida (Pensacola, and Santa Rosa Island); and Cuba (rarely Guantanamo). East to Cuba (rarely Guantanamo). South to Cuba (rarely Guantanamo); southern Texas (Refugio County, probably San Patricio County, and Corpus Christi); probably New Mexico (Carlsbad); and Lower Californi& (La Paz). West to Lower California (La Paz, probably Santa Rosalia Bay,, and probably San Quentin Bay); California (San Diego, probably San Nicholas Island, probably San Miguel Island, Santa Barbara, Morro, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Pescadero, San Francisco, and Eureka); probably Oregon (Netarts Bay); and probably Washington (Willapa Harbor).
Winter range: The winter range extends north to California (Santa Cruz Islands); Texas (Brownsville, Corpus Christi, and Aransas Bay); probably coastal regions of Louisiana; Florida (Pensacola, Santa Rosa Island, Cedar Keys, Clearwater; and Fort Myers); Bahama Islands (Riley); probably Cuba (Gundlach); probably Yucatan; and Chile (Calbuco). South to Chile (Calbuco). West to Chile (Calbuco, and probably Valparaiso); Peru (Chorillos, and the valley of the Tambo); probably Guatemala (Chiapam); Lower California (La Paz, Magdalena Islands, and San Cristobal Bay); and California (San Diego, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Barbara, and Monterey Bay). They also were noted at Westport, Wash., on December 19, 1927 (letter, J. II. Bowles), ai¶d so may winter rarely in that region.
Spring Migration: But little information is available concerning the migration of the snowy plover. Early dates of spring arrival are: Kansas, McPherson, April 14, and Douglas County, April 22; Utah, Salt Lake County, May 3; Oregon, Corvallis, March 24, and Malbeur Lake, April 20; and Washington, Grays Harbor, April 7.
Fall Migration: The few available late dates of fall departure are: Washington, Point Chehalis, November 18; and northern California, San Francisco, November 1, and Alameda, December 3.
Casual records: The snowy plover has been detected outside of its normal range on a few occasions. Among these are: Brazil (Specimen in United States National Museum); southern Chile (Coquimbo, Straits of Magellan in June [Sharpe]); Ontario, Toronto, one specimen in May, 1880, and another on July 6, 1897 (Fleming); Nebraska, two specimens at Lincoln, May 17, 1903 (Swenk); Wyoming, one taken near Cheyenne (Knight); while a specimen from Kodiak Island, Alaska, reported by Schalow (1891) as Ckaradrius a~exandrinu8, may be this species.
Egg dates: California: 155 records, April 2 to July 28; 78 records, May 5 to June 14. Utah: 5 records, April 30 to June 15.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE.: The above distribution i1icludes both North American races. Probably the birds found breeding east of the Rocky Mountains and wintering on eastern coasts will prove to be referable to tenuirostri8, but there are not enough specimens a’~ailable from these localities to outline definitely the ranges of the two races.]
CUBAN SNOWY PLOVER
CHARADRIUS NIVOSUS TENUIROSTRIS (Lawrence)
The snowy plover which breeds on the Gulf coasts of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, as well as in Cuba, the Bahamas, and a few places in the interior has been separated from the Pacific coast form under the above name. Theï difference between the two forms is not easily recognized, but the eastern bird is said to be much paler and may average a trifle smaller. The habits of the two seem to be similar. N. S. Goss (1891) found this bird breeding on the salt plains along the Cimarron River, Indian Territory, in 1886. Herbert W. Brandt sent me some notes ou a nest found by him in Nueces County, Tex. Francis M. Weston writes to me that it is common and breeds near Pensacola, Fla. He says of its notes:
When on the ground the Cuban snowy plover gives a low-pitched, musical whistle, roughly Indicated by the words ~,e-wee-ak or a-wee-ak, the accent being on the second syllable with the first and third almost inaudible at a distance of 30 feet. The flight note is a purring whistle, suggestive of the rolling note of the Carolina wren but pitched lower and not as strident.
It was apparently common during the winter in Pinellas County, Fla., frequenting the sandy islands and ocean beaches in the vicinity of Tampa Bay; but we found it difficult to separate it, in immature and winter plumages, from young piping plover, unless we were near enough to recognize its slender bill; the difference in size was not noticeable except by direct comparison. I can find nothing in its nesting habits or in its behavior in which it differs from the Pacific snowy plover. I have not seen its eggs, but presume that they are like those of the western form.