The Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus), by Dessi Sieburth

A breeding Western Snowy Plover, Morro Bay, CA | Photo by Steve Kaye, www.birdsbysteve.com

A breeding Western Snowy Plover, Morro Bay, CA | Photo by Steve Kaye, www.birdsbysteve.com

A non-breeding Western Snowy Plover at Malibu Lagoon, CA | Photo by Dessi Sieburth

A non-breeding Western Snowy Plover at Malibu Lagoon, CA | Photo by Dessi Sieburth

The Snowy Plover is a small shorebird that can be easily overlooked on our sandy beaches. The Snowy Plover is about 6 ¼ inches long and its back is dull gray to brown. The Snowy Plover has white underparts, and the breading male has dark markings on the side of the breast, the auriculars (ear patch), and the crown. Non-breeding males and females lack these dark markings on the head and breast. The dark bill is small and slender, and the legs are dark gray.

The Snowy Plover, which used to be a subspecies of the Kentish Plover, has been listed as a threatened species since 1993.There are currently two subspecies of the Snowy Plover, the Western nivosus and the Gulf Coast tenuirostris. The Western subspecies is substantially darker gray on the back than Gulf Coast subspecies. Western Snowy Plovers are found from coastal Washington south to the coast of El Salvador in Central America. They also breed in the Great Basin area and inland to New Mexico, central Texas, Kansas, and Colorado. Locally, they can be found year-round at coastal locations such as Malibu Lagoon, Zuma Beach in Malibu, the Ballona area in Playa del Rey, and Cabrillo Beach in Long Beach. They were formally found regularly during migration in the Antelope Valley near Lancaster, but now they are very scarce there. The Gulf Coast Snowy Plover can be found along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida. They are also found in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. The Western subspecies is threatened, while the Gulf Coast subspecies is not threatened but is declining.

The Western Snowy Plover generally lays three eggs in depressions in sand or in shallow sand scrapes. Common nesting habitat for the Snowy Plover includes coastal beaches, sand spits, beaches at creek and river mouths, as well as salt pans at lagoons and estuaries. Once the chicks hatch, the female will abandon them, and the male will take care of the chicks. Snowy Plovers usually raise two broods a year. The main source of food for both the chicks and the adults are aquatic insects and other insects found on beaches.

The Western Snowy Plover is declining rapidly and is now threatened in all the states where it is found along the coast. In Oregon, the Snowy Plover has experienced a 40% decline, and in Washington, there has been a 65% decline. In California, there is also a significant decline in the Snowy Plover population.Human disturbance is probably the greatest threat. Human activities like walking, jogging, and taking pets where the plovers breed contribute to the low reproductive success. Those disturbances can lead to nest abandonment. Urban development and non-native vegetation growing over Snowy Plover nesting habitat is also an issue.

Many conservationists are working to help the Western Snowy Plover. Efforts to help Snowy Plovers include putting up fences and signs in Snowy Plover habitat, making people aware of nesting Snowy Plovers. A group in Arcata, CA, is working to maintain Snowy Plover breeding grounds all along the West Coast. They are also working to manage breeding and wintering grounds to make the land safe for Snowy Plovers. Los Angeles Audubon Society also helps the Snowy Plover by conducting annual Snowy Plover surveys along the Southern California coast and making beaches safe for Snowy Plovers to use. If you would like to support Los Angeles Audubon Society’s effort to help the Snowy Plovers, please contact Stacey Vigallon at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

Everybody can help the Snowy Plover by minimizing the disturbance in Snowy Plover habitat and by keeping out of areas designated for Snowy Plovers.


PDF May/June 2016 Western Tanager Vol. 82 No. 5 (2,855KB)

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