Heading to the beach? Here’s how to help protect rare snowy plovers

Its light-colored feathers blend in with the beach, and its small size can make it even harder to spot. But if you know where to look, you may catch a glimpse of the western snowy plover, a rare shorebird that biologists are asking the public to help protect.

Native to Washington, western snowy plovers are listed as state endangered and as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 2023, the Washington population was estimated at fewer than 100 breeding adults and was dependent on birds immigrating to the state from Oregon.

The western snowy plover is a tiny shorebird with a gray back and dark patches on either side of the neck, behind the eyes, and on the forehead. Photo by USFWS.

Snowy plovers’ range extends from the southern Washington coast to Baja, California. Grays Harbor and Pacific counties are the only places in Washington where these birds are currently found.

In mid-April each year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) works with Washington State Parks to install signs to protect nesting areas at Copalis Beach, Grayland Beach State Park, and Leadbetter Point State Park.

“These birds weren’t always at Copalis,” said Anthony Novack, a WDFW district biologist who covers Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. “They’ve expanded a little where they’re nesting in Washington, so there’s a bit of good news there. Hopefully we can maintain the few birds that we have.”

Snowy plovers are also common at Graveyard Spit.

A snowy plover chick standing on a sandy beach. Photo by Jerry Kirkhart.

These birds do not migrate, instead spending their entire lives between the dune line and the high-tide line. Unlike many other bird species, snowy plovers do not build traditional nests.

“Western snowy plovers spend their entire lives on the beach, laying their eggs directly on the beach sand in a little divot called a scrape,” said Allison Anholt, WDFW’s coastal and migratory waterbird species lead. “Their eggs are camouflaged to look like seashells to make it harder for predators like crows, ravens, and coyotes to find them.”

Unfortunately, this also makes it difficult for people to spot nests and eggs, especially while driving. The birds themselves are also easy to miss, being about 6 inches long and varying in color from pale brown to gray, with a white underside.

Western snowy plover breeding season runs from mid-April to mid-September. During this time, WDFW asks all beach visitors to respect closure areas and signs indicating snowy plover nesting habitat.

Plovers lay eggs in small scrapes or divots directly in the sand. The eggs’ speckled appearance helps them blend in to the sandy surroundings, appearing like rocks. Photo by WDFW.

Events that draw large crowds — from razor clam digs to Fourth of July celebrations — can affect snowy plover nesting areas. Walking around nesting areas or allowing dogs near them can cause birds to abandon their nests, which may allow predators to eat the eggs.

Along with keeping out of posted areas, Novack recommends not throwing food or trash on the beach, as this can attract predators. Drivers should also follow the beach speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

“There’s only a small portion of the beach that snowy plovers need to survive,” Novack said. “Other than during the breeding season, these are tough little birds. They’re exposed to the elements — wind, rain, and cold — all year long. They just need this little window of time to be able to successfully mate and hatch their young. It’s not a big burden for us to give them some leeway.”

WDFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have researched and surveyed the snowy plover population in Washington for decades. Management strategies like hazing and removing crows and ravens, the main nest predators, may have contributed to improved nesting and fledging success in recent years.

Snowy plovers often like to nestle down in tire tracks in the sand. This underlines the importance of staying on the lookout for plovers while driving on the beach. Photo by WDFW.

Snowy plovers on Washington’s coast also face challenges posed by invasive plant species like European beach grass.

“This invasive beach grass was planted to create dunes for better flood protection, because its roots grow up to 30 feet long,” Anholt said. “However, western snowy plovers do not nest in places where European beach grass grows, because the grass creates very steep dune profiles.”

This steep terrain prevents plovers from walking down to the tideline to feed with their chicks, which cannot yet fly. It also makes it harder for them to see predators approaching.

Snowy plover habitat is also vulnerable to sea level rise, beach erosion, and storm surges.

“Plovers are a great indicator species for healthy shoreline and marine ecosystems,” Anholt said. “They need just the right amount of vegetation and cover in order to conceal their eggs, and this in turn supports other native marine life, like the marine invertebrates that plovers feed on.”

While populations for these small but tough shorebirds are still low, conservation efforts to recover and protect western snowy plovers are showing signs of hope. Helping plovers in Washington recover successfully benefits Washington’s shorelines and the other habitats and species that call the state home. Learn more by visiting WDFW’s western snowy plover webpage.

Snowy plovers are often seen by small piles of marine vegetation, called racklines. These provide food sources for plovers in the form of marine arthropods and also help provide shelter. Photo by WDFW.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.