Orange fish in the ocean - photo by Hiroko Yoshii - photo by Hiroko Yoshii

Snowy Plovers and Citizen Science along the Florida Panhandle

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For those who bird on the Emerald Coast, Snowy Plovers are a relatively common sight on Okaloosa Island – once you walk away from the more crowded beach access points. Less than seven inches long and lighter than two ounces, they breed in the dunes on the island and forage for prey throughout the wave line. In Florida, they are also a state-designated threatened species. 

Because of their threatened status, local researchers have embarked on an ambitious banding and monitoring program to learn more about their populations.  

On Eglin Air Force Base, I shadowed two wildlife staffers to monitor the hatchling success of two plover nests. Inside the first, one chick had hatched so recently that it was still wet! The other egg in the nest housed a chick who was tapping so insistently that I could easily hear it, and I knew it would soon emerge onto the sand as well. 

While Eglin Air Force Base staff used to band birds, today the Panhandle banding program is primarily run by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Beginning in 2008, they searched for eggs and then banded the chicks soon after hatching, when they are about the size of a ping-pong ball and weigh only 4 to 6 grams. Because their legs do not grow much wider, each chick is fitted with a tiny band, which is soldered shut. Each has a unique color combination so that it can be easily seen in the field.  

To spot the bands on growing chicks and adults, researchers depend on citizen scientists (like me!). Every time I see a Snowy Plover, I carefully photograph their legs to record the colors and positions on the bands, then submit them to the data website. Over 800,000 shorebirds have been banded in the United State since 1960, but only 15,000 have been encountered again: that’s only 2%! I know that each and every one of my observations is important, and I take care to input the data as soon as possible. 

The banding program has already revealed important information on the distribution and contribution of the Florida Panhandle populations. For example, certain sites, such as St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, are the “baby makers” of the region; their chicks can be found as adults on other breeding grounds. These very productive sites should be given additional protection and conservation support for the Snowy Plovers.

All photos courtesy of Erika Zambello. Photos are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission.

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