A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Snowy Plover

Charadrius nivosus

Our smallest shorebird, except for Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) and also one of the rarest, although fairly reliably present in a few places in the county--notably Doran Beach, at Bodega Bay, where I photographed the bird shown above. Restricted to sandy beaches (at Doran, usually the stretches to your left, not long after passing the entry kiosk--beaches hard to see from the road). Usually stays just beyond the water’s reach. Uses tidal mud flats as well, and also salty, alkaline ponds inland. Where present at the coast, often associates with Sanderlings (Calidris alba). Snowy Plovers blend so well with the sand they forage on, they are often overlooked entirely. When not running rapidly after prey (small invertebrates), they typically hide behind beach debris, stock still. They can conceal themselves just by “crouching” in a footprint in the sand. Present in the county most of the year, excepting a period from around mid-June to late July.

Long considered a subspecies of the bird known elsewhere in the English-speaking world as Kentish Plover, some official bodies voted in 2011 to split Kentish Plover and the American population into separate species, giving Snowy Plover the Latin name Charadrius nivosus. Most publications before 2012 will list our birds as Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus. Snowy Plover is considered a species of special concern. The California coastal population is officially threatened at the federal level.  

Bolander and Parmeter note records of Snowy Plover nesting at Doran Beach and Salmon Creek Beach in the past in Birds of Sonoma County California but suggest there had been no such activity at around the time of publication of that book, in 2000. In the update of 2010, Parmeter and Wight report an account of three nests at Salmon Creek Beach in 2005 that resulted in only one chick fledging. As those authors note, the Snowy Plover’s exposed, shallow nests are highly vulnerable--often succumbing to human activity, unleashed dogs, and to ravens and gulls. Human activity on beaches (especially use of off-road vehicles), dogs, and predation are problems for this bird along the entire California coast. The Breeding Bird Atlas, (1995, now out of date), gives only Salmon Creek Beach as a confirmed nesting site in Sonoma County, and no more recently than 1992. The upcoming edition of the Atlas will add newer data.

A diminutive plover. Pale, sandy grey-brown above (although some birds have a distinctly warmer tone and Gulf Coast birds are notably paler above than ours), white below. Slender, black bill. Dull, dark grey to black legs (but leg color is highly variable; some birds may even have pinkish legs). In breeding plumage, black on the forehead, a black auricular patch (behind the eye), and a broken black neck ring (which results in black crescents at the “shoulders”), particularly pronounced in males, which usually also show a slight rusty wash on the head and nape. Females lack the rusty wash and the black areas are less pronounced or they are dark brownish-grey rather than black. Non-breeding birds lose the black patches, which become the same color as the color of the back feathers. Juveniles similar to non-breeding adults but legs often greenish-grey and there may be a pronounced scalloped look to the back caused by fresh feather fringes (although these frequently wear away quickly). In Sonoma County, unlikely to be confused with any other bird. Our only very small plover. Also our only plover with a partial breast band: Semi-palmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) has one full band, Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) has two, all other plovers we see have none. Most similar to Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), a red-legged species with a shorter, thicker bill and lacking the dark auricular patch, but that bird is not recorded in Sonoma County.

Selected county sightings: Doran Beach (Mar 28, 2013, Colin Talcroft); Doran Beach (Feb 18, 2013, Brook O’Connor); Doran Beach (Sep 3, 2012, Gene Hunn); Doran Beach (Sep 1, 2012, Ken Wilson); Doran Beach (Feb 16, 2012, Dan Nelson); Doran Beach (Oct 27, 2011, Kathleen Mugele); Shollenberger Park (Aug 2, 2011, Scott Carey-- a lone bird)

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 49

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 212

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 65

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 156

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, pg. 168

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 110

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 197-198

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 137

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 148

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 168

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 91-92, 127, 194

O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson, The Shorebird Guide, 2006, pp. 44-46, 330-331

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 27

Paulson, Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide, 2005, pp. 53-56

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pp. 134, 136

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pp. 132, 154

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 124

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 145

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 215

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 137

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Snowy Plover



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Snowy Plover (breeding plumage), Doran Beach, Bodega Bay, March 28, 2013