Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus)

An adult western snowy plover standing on a sandy beach
A male western snowy plover in breeding plumage. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Category: Birds
Ecosystems: Marine shorelines
State status: Endangered
Federal status: Threatened
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate-
High

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

Washington's snowy plover population is very small and vulnerable to a variety of impacts, such as predators, adverse weather, shoreline modification, dune stabilization, and recreational activities.

Description and Range

Physical description

The snowy plover is about 6 inches in length. It is pale brown or grayish above and has a white underside. It has a black bill. Legs are dark. A breeding male has a black headband, blackish ear patch and partial black breast band; a breeding female’s markings are less distinct. Non-breeding adults and juveniles are paler overall.

Ecology and life history

In Washington, snowy plovers are found (in any season) on coastal beaches, sand spits, dune-backed beaches, and sparsely vegetated dunes.

A western snowy plover nest with three speckled eggs on a sandy beach
A western snowy plover nest with three speckled eggs. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Snowy plovers forage on a variety of invertebrates found at coastal intertidal areas and around the margins of lagoons and salt marshes.

Snowy plovers nest on the ground on broad open beaches or salt or dry mud flats, where vegetation is sparse or absent. Chicks leave the nest soon after hatching, and they use small clumps of vegetation for cover. Chicks are tended by both parents (or male only), and the female often then abandons its first mate and brood within a few days to re-nest with a new mate. 

A snowy plover chick standing on a sandy beach
​A western snowy plover chick's cryptic markings help it blend into its habitat. Jerry Kirkhart

Predation by gulls, common ravens, red foxes, skunks, raccoons, and/or coyotes may result in a high rate of clutch loss (eggs and chicks) in some areas.

Geographic range

The Pacific coast breeding population of snowy plovers extends from Washington to northwestern Mexico. Some are found further south during the winter months. In Washington, the species is found only in Pacific and Grays Harbor counties.

The Washington population consists of less than 100 adult birds, and is dependent on immigration from Oregon. Populations are responding to intensive conservation efforts, but viability analysis indicates that the Pacific coast population is unlikely to reach the federal recovery objective of 3,000 birds.

For maps of range-wide distribution and conservation status of this species, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

High

The dependence of western snowy plovers on coastal beaches and marshes as habitat for breeding and nesting increases their sensitivity to climate change. Sea level rise, beach erosion, and storm surges may cause declines in suitable habitat and decreases in local carrying capacity. Additionally, increased rainfall and storms could lead to declines in nesting success. Even without a loss of habitat, seasonal storms that wash over breeding areas will cause nest failure; this happens now with essentially benign weather patterns.

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Sea level rise
  • Increased coastal erosion
  • Increased storminess/storm surge >
Confidence: Moderate

Conservation

This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

  • Habitat loss or degradation 
    • Threat: Human disturbance; beach walkers, pets, cars.
    • Action Needed: Continue efforts to reduce disturbance to areas used by plovers. 
    • Threat: Degradation of habitat.
    • Action Needed: Continue programs to enhance nesting habitat by removing beach grass in key areas.
  • Invasive and other problematic species and genes
    • Threat: Nest predation by corvids.   
    • Action Needed: Control nest predation; continue ongoing predator management program.  
  • Resource information collection needs  
    • Threat: Ongoing surveys and nesting area protection measures.
    • Action Needed: Continue annual surveys conducted during breeding and winter periods.

See the Climate vulnerability section above for information about the threats posed by climate change to this species.

Our Conservation Efforts

WDFW has conducted monitoring surveys and research of the snowy plover population in Washington for multiple decades in cooperation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2013, a predator management strategy that included direct hazing and removal of crows and ravens, the main nest predators, was initiated on Washington nesting beaches and may be contributing to improved nesting and fledging success in recent years.

According to the Washington State Recovery Plan for the Snowy Plover, the species will be considered for down listing to threatened when the state supports a 4-year average of at least 25 breeding pairs that fledge an average of at least one young per adult male per year at two or more nesting areas with “secure” habitat.

In 2015, the 4-year average attained 26 breeding pairs at the two main sites for the first time in many years, and they averaged >1.0 fledgling/male in 2011, 2014, and 2015. In 2015, an estimated 69 to 77 chicks fledged, the highest number since formal surveys began in 2007.

As of 2021, the Washington population consists of less than 100 adult birds, and is dependent on immigration from Oregon. A population viability analysis suggested that the West Coast population would not reach the recovery objective of 3,000 individuals identified in the federal recovery plan, without additional habitat restoration. As a result, control of beach grass and management to reduce human disturbance are ongoing. Although the snowy plover population in the region appears to be increasing as a result of management actions in Washington and Oregon, the species in Washington is still state listed as endangered.

Watch this video about the life history of snowy plovers and species recovery efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the State of Oregon and learn what people can do to share the beach with this special bird.

 

Resources

Resources

Pearson, S. F., C. Sundstrom, B. Hoenes, and W. Ritchie. 2014. Washington State Snowy Plover Population Monitoring, Research, and Management: 2013 Nesting Season Research Progress Report. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington.

USFWS. 2007. Recovery plan for the Pacific coast population of the western snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus).

USFWS, Sacramento, California. WDFW. 1995. Washington State recovery plan for the Snowy Plover. Olympia, Washington.

WDFW publications

Status reports

Recovery plans

Population monitoring, research, and management

Other resources