A little bird with a BIG impact

Over the past two months you’ve heard a lot about the Pipeline P00547 oil spill. The spill has been featured in hundreds of news articles (local and national) as well as on social media and our very own OWCN blog posts. Thank you to Jennie and Danene for highlighting the hard work of our first and foremost VIP’s (very important people) of the spill, the 90+ field and care responders representing approximately 1/3 of our member orgs. I’d like to take this blogging opportunity to highlight the other VIP’s (very important patients) of the Pipeline P00547 spill, the western snowy plovers.


All about Our Western Snowy VIPlovers


The western snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) were the smallest patients in our care throughout the spill, weighing in at a whopping 35-40g, or roughly the size of a large chicken egg. The Pacific population of these little shorebirds can range from southern Washington, all the way down to Baja California, Mexico.

Western snowy plovers can be spotted year-round on coastal beaches, peninsulas, and even bays, estuaries or river outlets up to 50 miles inland. You might find them displaying the classic “run-stop-peck” in which they forage for crustaceans, worms, and other small marine invertebrates that they find in wet sand and kelp. When they are not running along the shoreline, snowy plovers seemingly disappear into their surrounding landscape. Western snowy plovers are masters of camouflage with their sand-colored feathers along the top part of their body and sand-speckled appearance of their eggs.

Masters of camouflage….

Snowy plover clutches typically contain 3 eggs and some plovers can lay two clutches per year. Females may breed with more than one male. In fact, after their eggs hatch they will often leave chick rearing duties to the male in order to re-nest with another male if there is adequate time left in the season. Snowy plovers display high site fidelity, and are often spotted at the same nesting locations year after year. Snowy plovers communicate to each other with “chirp-like” calls. They also use body language, such as drooping a wing or limping to signal the presence of a predator. Click here to listen to some common snowy plover calls.


Did you know that newborn snowy plovers leave their nest within 3 hours of hatching and immediately begin foraging on their own?


So, why was this little bird such a big deal? Well, in 1993 the Pacific population of western snowy plovers was listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Factors such as human disturbance, predation, inclement weather and encroachment due to urban development have played a large role in the decline of active nesting sites, and subsequently reproduction. From March to September snowy plovers establish nesting sites in small depressions in the sand. Human activities such as walking, jogging, off-leash pets, horseback riding and vehicle use can disturb these sites resulting in nest abandonment. Goals of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Western snowy plover Recovery plan include: (1) achieving well-distributed increases in numbers and productivity of breeding adult birds, and (2) providing for long-term protection of breeding and wintering plovers and their habitat.

Left: Oiled western snowy plover; Center: Stabilization enclosure; Right: Western snowy plover being examined by veterinarian prior to release. Photo credits OWCN/UC Davis

Even though western snowy plovers don’t live in water, oil can still have a big impact on their ability to waterproof and therefore thermoregulate. Given their small stature and nearly non-existent fat stores, they rely on their feather structure to keep warm, especially during inclement weather. When western snowy plovers get cold they have to expend their energy getting warm, instead of foraging for food or running away from predators. They can quickly become emaciated and dehydrated, resulting in severe debilitation. During the Pipeline P00547 spill, our initial snowy plover care focused on getting these tiny patients warm, hydrated and eating. Once stabilized we were able to focus on secondary concerns including skin burns and minor injuries.

Fortunately all 7 of our VIPatients made a full recovery and were released back to their native habitats where they can continue to contribute to the recovery of the Pacific population of western snowy plovers!

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the safe capture, care and release of these special little birds!


For more information about the western snowy plovers we cared for during the Pipeline P00547 oil spill check out this video and article by UC Davis.


~ Jamie, owcn response veterinarian

Ask a Vet: Getting to know your new Care Veterinarian – Dr. Jamie Sherman

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a wildlife veterinarian? How about what it’s like to work with giant or dangerous species? For Jamie’s first ever blog post, we asked YOU what you’d like to know about our new Care Vet.

What is your favorite land species? Marine species? 

Every time I get asked this question, I like to share a little anecdote – When I was around a year and half, my family went camping in Sequoia National Park. As my parents were packing up the car to go home, they put me in my car seat atop the campground picnic table (which also had items left out for one last lunch). All of a sudden, they heard some rustling and when they turned around they saw a bear helping itself to our lunch, right next to my car seat. My parents didn’t want to spook the bear into noticing me or knocking me off the table, so they calmly waited as the bear finished our salami sandwiches, chips and Oreos, then continued on its way. My sister who was 4 at the time watched the whole ordeal from the car with my parents, and to this day she remembers being terrified…but mostly because she didn’t want to share her Oreos. I like to think of this as the first sign that American black bears (Ursus americanus) would become an important part of my life. Since that first encounter, I’ve dedicated nearly a third of life to studying black bear populations and rehabilitating orphaned/injured bears across California. I even have a black bear tattoo! My favorite marine species is the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) because…I love bears. 

Jamie (far left) camping with her sisters in Sequoia National Park
Jamie at the San Francisco Zoo

Fun Fact #1: Jamie was born in California but grew up on the East Coast, until she moved back to California for graduate school. 

What’s the biggest animal you’ve ever worked with?

The largest animal I’ve ever worked with is also the largest animal to walk on land – the African elephant (Loxodonta africana). Did you know that African elephants can weigh up to 6 tons and stand over 11 feet tall? I had the opportunity to work with these majestic species during an undergraduate study abroad program in South Africa. As a part of this program, I worked 1-on-1 with wildlife veterinarians from the Kruger National Park to perform health assessments on African lions (Panthera leo), black rhinos (Diceros bicornis), Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer), and of course, elephants. Don’t worry, they were all safely sleeping (anesthetized) for their exams!

Fun Fact #2: Jamie was featured on a PBS documentary entitled, “Teens Behind the Wheel.” She was named the safest teen driver, a title she still boasts about today. 

What is a usual day like for you?

One thing (of many) that I love about being a wildlife veterinarian is that there is no such thing as a “usual” day. Although every day might be a little (or a lot) different than the last, the daily tasks for an OWCN veterinarian come back to the four “R’s” – Readiness, Response, Research and Reaching out:

  • Readiness – maintaining and updating inventories of medical supplies, developing and evaluating protocols for any and all species that might be affected by oil, attending continuing education trainings in order to keep our veterinary skills fresh, participating in drills, nurturing relationships with OWCN member organizations, primary care facilities and volunteers
  • Response – deterring animals from entering oil-affected areas, safely collecting and providing first aid to oil-affected animals, diagnosing and treating concurrent diseases or injuries, washing oil-affected animals, rehabilitating animals post-wash to ensure complete return of fitness, and the ultimate goal…release
  • Research – writing and reviewing research proposals, obtaining funding for primary research, ensuring appropriate and humane care, use and treatment of any animals involved in research, including correct permitting
  • Reaching out – conducting trainings for OWCN volunteers, writing for the OWCN blog, teaching/training veterinary students, responding to media requests, publishing research

Fun Fact #3: Jamie was afraid of dogs until she was 14 years old!

What research would you love to conduct?

I love doing research because it empowers me to think of a question, figure out how to answer that question, and disseminate those results to the community. Research is an integral part of OWCN’s mission to provide the best achievable capture and care of oil-affected wildlife and I currently have a few ideas up my sleeve. I am really interested in the use of infrared/thermal imaging for evaluating waterproofing in feathered marine species AND for determining oiling status of hairless/featherless species such as amphibians and reptiles. 

Fun Fact #4: Jamie has traveled to 5 out of the 7 continents.

If you had one piece of advice for someone interested in working with wildlife, what would it be?

My best advice for someone interested in a career in wildlife is, GET INVOLVED. Find a way to shadow or volunteer with someone in the field or an organization you are interested in. And don’t be discouraged if you get a few “nos” before you get a “yes.” Your first experience “working with wildlife” may entail filing paperwork, cleaning cages, preparing diets, sweeping the floors, or just watching, but it is a foot in the door. Every opportunity is an opportunity to learn and grow. If you show respect, enthusiasm, and a good work ethic, that door will eventually swing wide open! If you are interested in hearing more about how I applied these principles to my career path, check out this Evotis article.

Jamie with her first bear patient who had a severe case of mange, but with treatment made a full recovery!


Thank you to everyone for submitting your questions! If you have any burning questions that weren’t answered, or were sparked by this blog post please leave a comment or connect with us on Facebook or Instagram!

Your new Care Vet, 

Jamie