Poised to Fly, Snowy Plover Chicks Face a Challenge

Snowy Plover chicks are among the most endearing of all birds. But they're also very vulnerable, as this story shows. A conservation technician for ABC and Houston Audubon, Kristen Vale monitors key areas along the upper Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico to gather information about imperiled beach-nesting bird species and to educate the public on how to share the beach with the birds. One of Vale's study sites in the summer of 2014 was Galveston Island's East Beach. On a late August morning, she got some surprising news.

As told to ABC's Libby Sander

East Beach is at the tip of Galveston Island. On summer weekends, the beach can hold thousands of people. East of these crowds, at the beach adjacent to the Houston Ship Channel shoreline, there are low-lying dunes, some sparse vegetation, and a large, sandy area where beach-nesting birds, including Snowy Plovers, congregate.

Snowy Plover chick. Photo by Kristian Bell/Shutterstock

Snowy Plover chick. Photo by Kristian Bell/Shutterstock

At the end of August when the breeding season was winding down, there was still one family of Snowy Plovers with two chicks. It was quite late in the nesting season for there to be chicks on the ground; most had fledged by this point. The Snowy Plover chicks were around three weeks old—it would be only a few days or maybe a week until they would fledge.

The family happened to claim its territory within the sandy East Beach parking lot because there was some sea rocket and pickleweed growing there. It was a perfect place to feed on insects and take cover from the hot sun and predators.

I was going to work one morning when I ran into one of the staff members for the Galveston Parks Board of Trustees. He was familiar with me and knew the work I was trying to do to protect the beach-nesting birds using that site. He said, “I don't know if you're aware, but there's going to be a concert right here in this East Beach parking lot this weekend.”

Concern for Snowy Plover Chicks

I was worried. It is rare for Snowy Plovers to nest on the upper Texas coast. When we discovered Snowy Plovers nesting on Galveston Island, we were so ecstatic. It was a great sign that this bird is able to nest here on a popular, busy beach with so many people around.

But Snowy Plovers—along with Wilson's Plovers and Least Terns—are imperiled birds. Every family of these birds counts. It's programmed into their heads to come to this one site and breed here. Many of the reasons for their decline are human-caused threats: increased recreation on the beach, dogs, feral cats. People aren't aware that beach-nesting birds also use this beach.

Imperiled beach-nesting birds such as Snowy Plovers, Wilson's Plovers, and Least Terns (above, with chick) are programmed to come to the Texas coast every year to breed. Photo by Ivan Kuzmin / Shutterstock

Imperiled beach-nesting birds such as Snowy Plovers, Wilson's Plovers, and Least Terns (above, with chick) come to the Texas coast every year to breed. Photo by Ivan Kuzmin / Shutterstock

The concert was happening just before the Snowy Plover chicks' flight feathers were fully grown. They were not able to escape danger by flying away; they relied on running and hiding. So I needed to figure out how to buy them an extra week. They were so close to having their flight feathers.

As a partner of ABC and Houston Audubon, the Galveston Park Board of Trustees is very supportive of our work on the beach. The staff member informed the concert crew and other staff about this Snowy Plover family that had set up shop in the parking lot. They reduced the size of the fenced concert area, and moved the stage so it wouldn't cover the vegetation the Snowy Plovers were using for protection. I was so excited they were willing to help us. I didn't think anybody would purposely want to hurt these fluffy, vulnerable chicks.

Plover Chicks on the Run

The morning the crews were setting up the concert, the Galveston Park Board of Trustees staff member met me around 7 a.m. to help me urge the birds into a safer area. It was a wrangling effort. Making a wall, the two of us would walk toward the birds, encouraging them to move into the dunes where they'd be safe. Then we'd sneak around to the left, walk backwards, and swing around and walk forward again. “Twinkling,” as we call it in the bird world. We twinkled them into the safety area.

But the second we turned our backs, the chicks ran back into the parking lot. My heart just dropped. This family was so determined to be in this parking lot! That was their territory. That's where they wanted to stay.

East Beach Concert Setup showing plover chick territory, Kristen Vale

The stage was next to an area (foreground) the plover family had claimed as its territory. Photo by Kristen Vale

So the rest of the day, I just sat down in the parking lot to watch the family while the crews set up the stage. At this point I just had to hope for the best. They were so close to fledging that if they had dodged all these vehicles so far this summer, hopefully they could dodge the people during the concert.

The birds have evolved to blend into their surroundings. But our eyes aren't trained to look down for chicks, watch for birds calling, or notice a broken-wing display—when adult birds feign injury to lure threats away from a nest or chicks— telling us to get out of the area. People don't understand these signals or know to look for them. They see the signals too late, or not at all.

That evening, I knew there was nothing more I could do. I just had to say, “OK, I've done the best I can to protect these birds. Let's hope for the best.” So I went home.

Hoping for the Best

The morning after the concert, I didn't know what I would find. Was I going to find these plovers dancing around their parking lot? Or were they going to be gone?

I knew the concert crew was going to be cleaning up, so I tried to get there before too many of the vehicles were zooming around. I walked past the concert area and didn't see anything. I walked past their foraging territory and didn't see anything. I walked a little further toward their nesting habitat and didn't see anything.

Adults will often feign injury to lure threats away from Snowy Plover chicks. Photo by J. Michael Wharton / Shutterstock

Adult Snowy Plovers (above, with Snowy Plover chick) will often feign injury to lure threats away from a nest or chicks. Photo by J. Michael Wharton / Shutterstock

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this little thing moving. I couldn't believe it. There were the adults and two chicks, just feeding away, still in the parking lot. They had survived.

A few days after the concert, I was able to see the chicks take flight. I hoped they would come back the following year and raise a family of their own. But not in a parking lot!

Kristen ValeKristen Vale holds a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Texas A&M University and has worked at Canyonlands National Park and Everglades National Park. She is finishing up her master's degree in environmental science at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Her thesis is on wintering Piping Plovers on the upper Texas Coast.