For the Birds Radio Program: Snowy Plover in Duluth!
This week a bird turned up on Park Point in Duluth that had never been seen in St. Louis County before, and has only appeared a handful of times in the western half of the state. The Snowy Plover is a rare species even within its natural range, along the Pacific Coast from south Washington to Mexico and down into Ecuador, the Florida Gulf coast down to the Yucatan Peninsula, and isolated patches in the inland United States. Overall, the range is growing increasingly fragmented and the species increasingly rare. The inland range is farther south than Minnesota, but last year Minnesota had its first breeding record in Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge—this may perhaps be a case of ranges extending northward with climate change, or just an odd vagrant—it’s hard to say. But regardless, suddenly this week, a Snowy Plover turned up in Duluth.
Snowy Plovers are beautiful little shorebirds. Their plumage is pale—the color of dry sand, and pretty much the same color as that of Piping Plovers. Both species are beautiful in an adorable, cute sort of way, chunky, short-necked round birds with large dark eyes. But unlike the Piping Plover’s orange beak with a black tip, the Snowy Plover has a black beak, and the incomplete collars aren’t quite the same. To me, the Snowy Plover has a more elegant appearance, but superficially, the two are easy to confuse.
When Shawn Zierman discovered two odd pale little plovers on Park Point and alerted the MOU listserv, lots of birders descended upon Park Point. That afternoon, Don Kienholz found both a Piping Plover hanging around with some other shorebirds and the Snowy Plover by itself. I was in the Twin Cities that day, but Mike Hendrickson called my house to make sure I knew about it for my last spring Warbler Walk of the year Thursday morning. And sure enough, our group managed to tear ourselves away from all manner of warblers and other songbirds in a major migration fallout in the fog to find the little plover. Oddly enough, this was the first time all season that I forgot extra batteries for my cameras, and naturally both of them went dead while I was photographing the plover. But I did manage to get 18 pretty good pictures of the little bird which are posted on my blog. We didn’t manage to find a Piping Plover, but there was a Semipalmated Plover hanging out with Sanderlings, a Dunlin, and a couple of Semipalmated Sandpipers on the beach.
No one knows where the Snowy Plover came from, and no one knows where it’s headed next. Rarities turning up during migration are always exciting, and when one is not just rare but beautiful, it’s especially magical. Thanks to last year’s breeding record, birders will be watching carefully for Snowy Plovers all summer. I don’t know if the search will be rewarded, but it sure is cool that a bird that appears in Minnesota even less often than a Blue Moon would pick a week with a Blue Moon to show up. We’ll keep the faith that within a few days this little sprite will cut out and find its way to suitable habitat and a suitable mate so we can look forward to more appearances by this extraordinary creature for many years to come.