On Friday, September 8, two federally threatened, juvenile Western snowy plovers that had been rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium were released on Midway Beach in Washington.
The plovers came to the Aquarium as newly hatched chicks, covered in down but active and alert. Both were abandoned by their parents in two separate instances, 11 days apart, on beaches along the southwest coast of Washington. In each case, staff from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) brought the abandoned chicks—their bodies no bigger than balls of cotton—to the Aquarium for care.
Cyndie Sundstrom, a WDFW Wildlife Biologist, found both chicks and transported them to the Aquarium, the nearest facility authorized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to administer care to threatened species such as the Western snowy plover. This shorebird lives year-round on sandy beaches along the Pacific coast. It lays its eggs directly on the ground, in exposed dry-sand areas high up on the beach.
One chick had been abandoned by its parent and two siblings after a predator approached their nest. The other chick was discovered while still in its egg, after its nest was abandoned and covered with windblown sand. At this site, the disturbance had come from humans: Campers trespassed into a restricted nesting area and scared away a pair of incubating adults, leaving their nest exposed to the elements. High winds covered the nest with sand, smothering the eggs.
Sundstrom, who monitors snowy plovers on southwest Washington beaches, found the buried nest on July 25 just in time. Wondering if the eggs had already hatched, Sundstrom located where the nest should have been and began digging. Her fingers grazed the eggs nearly six inches below the drifted sand, breaking open their delicate shells. She brought a total of three eggs to the surface, and to her surprise, two of them contained peeping chicks (one of these chicks suffered from a birth deformity and did not survive). The plover parents were nowhere to be seen.
“I knew that this was an extremely unusual situation, and my immediate thought was to get these chicks to a stable environment and I started making calls to find out where they could be taken,” Sundstrom said. When she found herself with the second orphaned chick 11 days later on August 11, she knew the Aquarium offered the best chance at saving it.
The two surviving plover chicks, each from a different brood, posed an interesting rehabilitation case for Aquarium staff.
“Because the chicks are born with the instinct to seek live prey, the hardest part about feeding them is keeping the right variety and size of live food in stock,” said CJ McCarty, Curator of Birds at the Aquarium. “We are often buying out the entire supply of tiny crickets and mealworms from our nearest pet stores and going to the beach to collect beach hoppers from the wrack line.”
The chicks quickly put on weight and molted into the gray and white plumage of immature snowy plovers. By September 8, they were ready for release back in Washington. Just before departing Newport, Oregon Coast Aquarium staff helped Sundstrom attach colored bands to their legs to aid with future identification.
“It is always an amazing experience working with these tiny yet resilient birds,” McCarty said. “We at the Aquarium especially enjoy knowing that many of the birds we’ve cared for are spotted on beaches in following years.”
We checked in with Laura Todd, Field Supervisor for the USFWS Newport Office, a few days after the plovers’ release to see how our former patients were acclimating. “Thanks to [Sundstrom’s] quick thinking in response to a unique set of circumstances, and the expert care provided by Aquarium staff, these chicks are now back in their natural habitat and have rejoined flocks of other wild snowy plovers on their native beaches,” Todd assured us. “This remarkable rescue would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts of WDFW, USFWS and the Oregon Coast Aquarium.”
Recovery efforts since the 1990’s have dramatically increased the plover population in Oregon, with current levels near recovery goals in Oregon and Washington. Recent counts indicate that about 450 adult birds are in Oregon, a substantial increase from the record-low 28 birds in 1992. In Washington, where the plover is a state-listed endangered species, the current population is around 50 adults.
Snowy plovers need flat, continuous areas of sand with no grass that are relatively undisturbed by humans, pets, vehicles and human-attracted predators. These shorebirds once inhabited Oregon’s beaches up and down the coastline, but development and introduced beach grass have destroyed much of their habitat and allowed predator numbers to rise.
Several Western snowy plovers have been rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in years past. The facility relies on visitor-related revenues, grants, and donations to finance its annual operations, including its wildlife rehabilitation activities. Additional funding for these projects comes directly out of the money budgeted for the care of the Aquarium’s 15,000 marine animals and from limited federal endangered-species-recovery funds when available. To help support the Aquarium’s rehabilitation efforts, please call (541) 867-4931.
Information and photos provided by Oregon Coast Aquarium