After the devastation of Tropical Storm Debby and losses to natural predation earlier this summer, Siesta Key’s birdwatchers finally found two tiny rays of hope last week.
Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association and a Sarasota Audubon volunteer, reported that two snowy plover chicks had hatched in a conservation area on the island.
“They’re the first ones on Siesta Key that have made it,” she told The Sarasota News Leader on Aug. 3. “We took some special measures for these little ones.”
Jeanne Dubi, president of Sarasota Audubon, drove over to Siesta Aug. 7 to see for herself.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she told the News Leader.
With one other hen sitting on a nest, Dubi said she was hopeful “we’ll have another set” of chicks.
The plovers, which are an endangered species, have declined more in numbers over the years than wildlife officials had thought, Luckner reported during the June SKA meeting, citing recent statistics. Fewer than 200 were counted along the Gulf Coast in the latest survey, she added.
Since the chicks were born last week, thunderstorms and the public both have proven to be challenges to their well-being, Luckner said.
She and her husband, Bob, were out “chick checking” about 8:30 p.m. Aug. 3 when they spotted a small jeep driving down the wrack line — where the island’s plovers have been feeding.
They watched a young man climb out and start to put into the sand a marker of some sort, she said. When the Luckners approached him, they learned he was a representative of the Siesta Beach Olympic Triathlon, which was scheduled for early Aug. 4. Fortunately, Catherine said, after they explained about the chicks, he quickly offered to relocate the event marker.
“I don’t know what would have happened with those little chicks with that many more people, feet and onlookers,” she wrote in an email.
Plover chicks have been described as resembling cottonballs on toothpicks. They are so tiny, and so hard to see against the sand on the beach, volunteers work hard to keep en eye on them, so they do not get stepped on, Luckner and other Sarasota Audubon members have said.
As soon as the news went out that the chicks had hatched last week, Luckner said, she helped phone volunteers to ask them to take turns as “chick checkers.”
The chicks did quite a bit of roving over the weekend, she reported on Monday, though the hen kept moving them to the wrack line. The Luckners finally realized, Catherine said, that people were avoiding stepping in the wrack.
“It’s amazing to see how many Plovers figured this out; you can see their little white heads sticking up from the seaweed, just relaxing,” she wrote in an email.
The Luckners counted 22 in that wrack line, she added.
Dubi told the News Leader on Aug. 7 that it appeared the birds were feeding at the shoreline in the mornings, when not as many people were on the beach; then, they were retreating to the nesting area, which has been roped off for protection, “which is fantastic.”
Additionally, Luckner reported, county staff and Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office deputies have been monitoring the nesting areas, as sightings of dogs on the beach have continued to come in regularly, even though a county ordinance forbids owners to bring pets on the beach.
George Tatge, a county Parks and Recreation Department manager, told members of the SKA during their Aug. 2 meeting that plovers abandon a nest — at least temporarily — if they feel threatened by a four-legged mammal.
Dubi pointed out that the plovers that come to Sarasota County each year begin nesting in April. “We’ve probably lost at least six nests this summer,” she said, to the storm and predators. She estimated as many as 20 eggs were destroyed.
Additionally, of the 30 or so beach-nesting chicks people rescued on Longboat Key and took to Save Our Seabirds during Debby’s assault of the barrier islands in June, only three survived, she said. Most of those chicks lost were black skimmers, with the rest being least terns.
“It’s really been a rough, rough summer, and Tropical Storm Debby didn’t help at all,” Dubi said.
So far, Dubi added, only one plover chick hatched in the county this season has fledged, meaning it reached the point of flying on its own. That was on Longboat Key, she said.
“We were absolutely delighted and thrilled” to find the two new nests on Siesta, she added. “We had almost given up for the summer. … Maybe we’re going to get more chicks.”
One other positive note, Dubi said, had been the good response to Sarasota Audubon employees’ outreach efforts, as they have worked to educate the public about the plovers. People are “more cooperative every year,” she said.