Oil Spill Wildlife Update: Snowy Plover

Snowy plover chicks. Photo: USFWS

What could be a greater contrast to last year’s massive, devastating oil spill than a snowy plover, no bigger than a fist, skittering hither and thither along a Gulf Coast beach. It’s a bird that weighs just two ounces as an adult, while an estimated 170 million gallons of crude gushed from the Deep Horizon well.

Though snowy plovers are found not just in the Americas, but also in the Old World, the U.S. population is a slim 17,000 or so. They exist only where there’s suitable habitat: beaches and flats that allow these quick striders, and their mottled eggs, to blend in. Along the Pacific, the Western snowy plover, a subspecies, is threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Around the Gulf, the population is larger, but still declining slightly. Fortunately, about 60 percent of nesting pairs use beaches along a 60-mile stretch of southernmost Texas, which didn’t see any oil. Had the spill happened there, what then?

But snowy plovers can be troubled not just by pollution, but by our mere presence: by development and general beach use, and now, around the Gulf, by spill mitigation efforts. “Back on their traditional nesting grounds on the beaches and barrier islands this year, snowy plovers again face disturbance from cleanup activities where oil is still washing ashore or bubbling up through the sand,” says Melanie Driscoll, Audubon’s Direction of Bird Conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway.

What’s worse, possibly, is if snowy plovers are feeding from soiled beaches. Says Driscoll, “We fear that they are ingesting oil in the small crabs, shrimp, mollusks, and marine worms they eat as they race up and down our Gulf shores.”

For more on the snowy plover, read last year's spotlight on the species, posted here on The Perch during the spill.