Chorlitos in peril: nature photographers come to the rescue of the snowy plover

To call someone a cabeza de chorlito in Spanish is equivalent to calling that person a birdbrain in English. But how did the poor little chorlito (plover) end up with a reputation for not being the sharpest needle on the cactus? Yesterday I found out.

I I had been invited to the shores of Lake Atotonilco—a RAMSAR (protected) wetland located 40 kilometers southwest of Guadalajara and 40 kilometers northwest of Ajijic—by a group of nature photographers who were trying to remedy a problem that the chorlito nevado (snowy plover) is hopelessly stuck with.

pg24aErnesto Sánchez Proal of Bluefeet Expeditions explained the situation to me: 

“Unlike other birds that hide their nests in tall grass or trees, the plover, which is on the list of endangered species, lays its eggs on a flat spot on the beach, out in the open.  And its nest consists of nothing more than a slight depression in the sand or mud. For a chorlito, even an animal footprint will do as a nest.

“So, here on the shores of the Atotonilco Lagoon, those eggs are left not only to the mercy of predators like crows and possums, but also in danger of being accidentally crushed by human heels, cows hooves or the wheels of cars being driven aimlessly up and down the beach.”

“¡Cabezas de chorlito!” I couldn’t help exclaiming. “Why do these birds lay their eggs out in the open?”, I asked biologist Said Quintero Felix, whom I found bending over a cluster of three little eggs, with a caliper in one hand and a clipboard in the other.

“Believe it or not,” he told me, “the reason is that plovers have to perform a little ritual for choosing a nesting site, and it can only be done on soft sand or mud, in a flat, open spot. Here the male uses his feet to dig three little holes. The female then inspects the holes for quality, chooses whichever she considers the best and then drops little pebbles—or pieces of colored glass, if she can find them—all around the winning depression, and that is where she lays her eggs, whether or not we think it’s logical.”

Quintero Felix went on to tell me that female plovers aren’t really all that dumb. It seems, in fact, that they are rather promiscuous and might have three different “husbands,” all of whom may end up sitting on the eggs and caring for the chicks, while their communal “wife” goes off to do something else.

After measuring and numbering an egg, Quintero placed it in a small bowl full of water. “If it falls to the bottom,” he explained, “it means it was recently laid,

pg21bwhereas if it floats high in the water, it will hatch very soon. In the latter case, if you put the egg to your ear, you may hear the chick inside already pecking at the shell.”

Plover eggs need about 25 days to hatch, and for all that time are threatened by myriad dangers. Although plovers are pretty feisty and will pull on the tailfeathers of an enemy bird, there’s not much they can do if a big animal comes along except to run away from the nest and hope the intruder will follow them.

The chicks, however, pop out of the egg ready to deal with the less-than-desirable situation their parents have put them in. 

“Within minutes after hatching,” Quintero told me, “a baby plover—which is born covered in down—is capable 

of running far away at high speed.” To see this for yourself, go to “Said Felix” on Facebook and click on Photos/Albums/Videos.

To give these little birds half a chance of surviving, photographers Rodolfo “Roy” Sánchez, Carlos “Charlie” Contreras, Jesús “Chuy” Moreno and Ernesto Sánchez Proal reached into their pockets to buy long-lasting metal signs — with drawings donated by local artist Lizzy Martínez — telling people to watch out for plover eggs.

Chorlitos lay their eggs in May and June, but they are very picky and you’ll not see them in most other lagoons in the area. In fact, the only spot on the shore of the Atotonilco Lagoon where they can be found at all is at the north end of the lake, just on the edge of the town of Villa Corona, but the experts suggest that people stay away from this particular small area from May to July. However, there are many other species of waterbirds which can be seen around the lake all year round, because this lagoon is an important rest stop, breaking up the incredibly long journeys of many species of migratory birds traveling from Canada to destinations far south of Mexico.


By the way, I wasn’t bothered by a single mosquito on my visit to the just happens that the favorite food of chorlitos is mosquito larvae.


How to get there

Take highway 54 south from Guadalajara, towards Colima, and then get onto highway 80, which goes to Acatlán and Barra de Navidad. Drive northwest into Villa Corona on Avenida López Mateos. When you come to a Pemex station, make a U-turn and get onto Calle Plan de Ayala, which is a “lateral” paralleling the highway. Stay on this street for 540 meters and, at N20.41060 W103.65904, turn right onto a dirt road heading south. After 860 meters you’ll reach the beach - where you must park, lest you run over any plover eggs. You’ll find the route from highway 54 to this spot on under “Laguna de Atotonilco Beach.” Driving time from Guadalajara: about 40 minutes.