The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, April 06, 2003

Naturally Texas
Snowy Plovers, Old Friends, Are Back
Terry Maxwell, April 6, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

In the last few days of March, I had my ASU ornithology class on an outing to the Gulf Coast. At least one of those young people - one reared high in the Panhandle grasslands - had never seen the ocean. That's among my thrills in taking young West Texans to the Gulf.

But it is a particular joy in decline. If you can believe it, the first time I took students to Port Aransas - it was about 1978 - over half of that class saw marine water for the first time. You would have thought that ferry to Mustang Island was a space ship. Anyway, my point today is about birds, not ferries or oceans.

For our last day of birding on this trip, we spent a lot of time at Oso Bay in Corpus Christi. As usual, it was stunning. Clouds of dowitchers, stilt sandpipers, least sandpipers, marbled godwits, and black-necked stilts whirled above the sand. All those shorebirds can be seen in lesser numbers on reservoirs in the Concho Valley, but it's the uncountable numbers of them on that organically-rich bay that make Oso so memorable. Anyway, that's really not my point either.

A bird that we did not see that trip, but that we did see on our first day back in San Angelo was snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus). It can, of course, be seen coastally in Texas, but its presence out here on these dusty plains has always been special to me.

It was all I could do to get the students to pay attention to the other species hurrying, probing, and sifting along the shore of O. C. Fisher Lake at San Angelo State Park. They were completely taken with those little white plovers.

Plovers live in the same habitats as sandpipers, but they exploit those same areas in different ways. Plovers are visual hunters of invertebrates (mostly insects), whereas just about all sandpipers are tactile probers that insert the bill into sand or mud and feel for prey. That's not a plover thing to do.

Snowies, like all plovers I know, have the peculiar, jerky run and peck way of foraging. It sort of gives them a wind-up toy appearance. Their large head and eyes contribute to the image.

Our snowy plover occurs on every continent, and has a long list of English names, including Kentish plover, Peruvian plover, and Ceylonese plover. Some authorities refer to it as the sandplover, to which you can put the same modifiers such as snowy sandplover.

The prolific author Paul Johnsgard pointed out that this plover is usually found along seacoasts but can be seen in limited numbers inland on "sandy riverbanks, saline flats, and barren reservoir shorelines." Concho Valley snowy plover habitat falls into that barren reservoir shoreline slot. That's not a particularly pleasant feature out here in these drought years, but more often than not our reservoirs seem to be receding and making snowy plover habitat.

O. C. Fisher Lake was built by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers when I was a child in the early 50s. Since those blue jean and black tennis shoe days, I have seen this little plover species nest on its shores just about every year. If they're there, you can't miss them.

In their breeding season, males divide up the mud flats into hotly defended territories. I know that I'm a biologist and not supposed to give in to emotional images, but there are few more enjoyable scenes in nature than a collection of small white wind-up toys running back and forth chasing each other. It's serious business for them, but it will lighten up your day.

Snowy plovers are in trouble in some regions. In our modern world, many beaches are increasingly occupied by people and their vehicles. It seems that it's all we can do to allow these little plovers a few sections of coastal sand to continue what they need to survive.

Our inland plovers, by contrast seem less disturbed - fishermen and sunbathers care little for mudflats. It may not be Oso Bay, but the snowy plovers, pretty much undisturbed, are fighting it out for territories on the mud flats among the half-buried beer cans.


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