There are an estimated 225-250 breeding pairs of snowy plover in Florida, where they are listed as a threatened species.
A merciless Category 5 hurricane stabbed Florida’s Panhandle a year ago, cleaving homes from foundations and abrading beaches where an imperiled bird is now enjoying a renaissance.
The shell-colored snowy plover is the unwitting benefactor of one of Mother Nature’s brutally efficient resets.
Wildfires char land coaxing new growth from ashes. Crop-damaging freezes slap the subtropics culling invasive species.
And on Oct. 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael blasted through protective gulf coast beach dunes, shredding or covering vegetation in a whirlwind of destruction that left the perfect nesting habitat for the quick-footed plover.
Sixty-eight snowy plovers were successfully fledged this year on about a 40-mile stretch of white sugar sand from near Port St. Joe to St. Andrews State Park.
That’s up from just 12 successful fledglings in 2018. The five-year average prior to Michael was 23.
“When I saw that Hurricane Michael was headed for this region, I was hoping the storm was not going to be as catastrophic as it was, however, we did know the storm had the potential to reset the beach to the open and sparsely vegetated conditions shorebirds prefer,” said Raya Pruner, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Panhandle shorebird project manager. “Ecologically speaking, the beach dune system and barrier islands do need some tropical disturbances to maintain balance.”
There are an estimated 225-250 breeding pairs of snowy plover in Florida, where they are listed as a threatened species. About 80 percent of Florida’s snowy plovers live in the Panhandle, where there are large stretches of undeveloped public land.
“The population is vulnerable due to the low population size, loss of coastal habitat due to development and recreational pressures,” Pruner said. “They are highly tied to the conditions of the coastal beaches.”
Snowy plovers prefer large sandy stretches for their nests, which are no more than a shallow depression in the sand filled with shell bits, twigs and pebbles that add to the camouflage of the 7-inch bird’s mottled coloring.
When sea oats and coastal panic grass overgrow dunes, crowding beaches with dense vegetation, the snowy plover is more vulnerable to predators, no longer able to hide itself or its nest, and unable to see what’s stalking it.
Ghost crabs, raccoons, opossums, rats, coyotes and crows prey on eggs, chicks and even adult snowy plovers.
Coastal development, sea level rise and a nesting season that aligns with high tourism traffic – February through August – increases their vulnerability.
Observations also suggest that other imperiled beach nesting bird species in the region, such as least terns and black skimmer, also benefited from the storm altered landscape, primarily through an increase in available habitat.
Kara Doran, an oceanographer who studies beach erosion for the U.S Geological Survey, said most of the beachfront east and west of where the 160-mph Hurricane Michael made landfall near Tyndall Air Force Base experienced significant overwash.
The National Hurricane Center estimates storm surge reached 14 feet at Mexico Beach. Two new inlets were created on Cape San Blas as the Gulf of Mexico blasted channels through a narrow beachfront. Low dunes on St. George Island were dragged inland as if smeared by a giant paintbrush.
“It was a pretty extreme difference,” Doran said about the condition of the coast before and after Michael. “The process of dune rebuilding takes decades unless there is human intervention.”
The snowy plover post-hurricane resurgence is not unique.
Piping plovers on Fire Island, N.Y. increased by 93 percent following 2012′s Hurricane Sandy, according to a study published online in June in the journal Ecosphere.
Pruner said the last time plover productivity was so high in the Panhandle was following hurricanes Ivan and Dennis in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
Even seemingly uninterested plovers perked up after Michael.
A 12-year-old male that had not fledged chicks in more than five years, raised three chicks in 2019. Male plovers often raise chicks so the female can find new suitors and lay additional eggs. Also, a female plover FWC has tracked since 2012 and that is known to be mostly unproductive fledged five chicks from three different nests this year.
“It is kind of surprising that some species like this natural process that can be so disrupting to us,” Doran said. “We are so focused on the human impact of the storm destroying homes and lives and infrastructure, we don’t think about the positive changes that can occur.”
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.