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Western Snowy Plover (Coastal)


Scientific name: Charadrius nivosus nivosus 

Status: Threatened

Listing Activity: The western snowy plover (snowy plover) was listed as a threatened species in 1993. Critical habitat was designated in 2005 for 32 areas along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.  A recovery plan was finalized in September 2007. On March 22, 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a revision to the critical habitat designation.  A final rule on the proposed revision was completed on June 5, 2012.


  • Description and Life History

    The snowy plover is a small shorebird distinguished from other plovers (family Charadriidae) by its small size, pale brown upper parts, dark patches on either side of the upper breast, and dark gray to blackish legs. Snowy plovers weigh between 1.2 and 2 ounces. They are about 5.9 to 6.6 inches long.


    The Pacific coast population of snowy plovers breeds on coastal beaches from southern Washington to southern Baja California, Mexico.  Snowy plovers lay their eggs in shallow depressions in sandy or salty areas that generally do not have much vegetation. Because the sites they choose are in loose sand or soil, nesting habitat is constantly changing under the influence of wind, waves, storms, and encroaching plants.

    Life History

    The nesting season extends from early March through late September. The breeding season generally begins earlier in more southerly latitudes, and may be two to four weeks earlier in southern California than in Oregon and Washington. Fledging (reaching flying age) of late-season broods may extend into the third week of September throughout the breeding range. Nests typically occur in flat, open areas with sandy or saline substrates. Vegetation and driftwood are usually sparse or absent. They nest in open, flat, sparsely vegetated beaches and sand spits above the high tide. The typical clutch size is three eggs but can range from two, and in rare cases, up to six eggs. Snowy plovers often return to the same breeding sites year after year.

    Snowy plover chicks leave the nest within hours after hatching to search for food. They are not able to fly for approximately four weeks after hatching, during which time they are especially vulnerable to predation.  The adults do not feed their chicks, but lead them to suitable feeding areas. Adults use distraction displays to lure predators and people away from chicks. Adult snowy plovers commonly signal the chicks to hide with calls, as another way to protect them. They may also lead chicks, especially larger ones, away from predators. Most chick mortality occurs within six days after hatching.

    Snowy plovers are primarily visual foragers. They forage on invertebrates in the wet sand and among surf-cast debris within the intertidal zone, in dry, sandy areas above the high tide, on salt pans, and along the edges of salt marshes, salt ponds, and lagoons.

    Conservation Measures

    Historically, snowy plovers nested at five locations on the Washington coast, but currently only three sites are occupied.  Seasonal restrictions on beach use are implemented at some of the nesting areas in an effort to reduce disturbance to breeding snowy plovers. Activities that may adversely affect snowy plovers include dune stabilization using vegetation or fencing, construction of breakwaters and jetties, sand deposition, and driving off-road vehicles near nesting areas. Recreational activities near nests, such as dog walking, spring razor clam digs, horseback riding, kite-flying, and picnicking may result in abandonment of the nest by adult snowy plovers. Trash or food left on the beach may attract predators.

    The public can help to increase the chance of snowy plover survival and breeding success by:

    • Staying out of the signed nesting areas
    • "Sharing the beach" by recreating away from nesting areas and using the wet sand
    • Keeping dogs pets on leash or leaving them at home
    • Removing litter from beaches to discourage predators
    • Flying kites only at non-nesting beaches,as these may be mistaken for avian predators by plovers,
    • Leaving the area immediately and contacting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife if a snowy plover nest is found in an unprotected area.

    In addition to seasonal closures, there are other management tools used to help recover the snowy plover. In Washington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and the Washington State Parks and Recreation Department help to protect habitat, conduct surveys, and restore habitat for snowy plovers. The Willapa National Wildlife Refuge is removing European beachgrass, leveling steep dunes that formed as a result of beachgrass introduction, and placing shell material in areas which are selected to provide high quality nesting habitat with minimal beach use conflicts. Predator management is also being conducted in conjunction with the USDA Wildlife Services (APHIS) to reduce impacts to nests and chicks from crows and ravens.


    Page, G.W., L.E. Stenzel, W.D. Shuford, and C.R. Bruce. 1991. Distribution and abundance of the snowy plover on its western North American breeding grounds. J. Field Ornithology. 62(2):245-255.

    Page, G.W., J. S. Warriner, J. C. Warriner and P. W. C. Paton. 1995. Snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus). In: The Birds of North America, No. 154 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists Union, Washington, DC.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1993. Determination of Threatened Status for the Pacific Coast Population of the Western Snowy Plover. FR 58:12864-12874.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2012. Revised Designation of Critical Habitat for the Pacific Coast Population of the Western Snowy Plover; Final Rule. 

    U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service. 2007. Recovery Plan for the Pacific Coast Population of the Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus). In two volumes.  Sacramento, California. xiv + 751pp.



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