Piping Plovers

Piping Plover

(Charadrius melodus)

A Vanishing Shorebird

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In 2006, a comprehensive survey was published on the piping plover population across the shorebird’s winter and breeding ranges in the United States, Canada, France (islands near Canada), Mexico, and the Caribbean. A draft report was prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by Elise Elliott-Smith and Susan M. Haig, U.S. Geological Survey, and Brandi M. Powers, U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The study was part of an on-going effort that began in 1991 and continues today at 5-year intervals to provide data to assess the piping plover population status and distribution.

The breeding census in 2006 recorded a grand total of 8,092 adult piping plovers at 1,925 sites. The Northern Great Planes had the largest population of piping plovers with 4,662 birds or 57.6 percent of the population. The Canadian Atlantic shoreline was second with 3,320 piping plovers or 41.0 percent of birds.  Third was the U.S. Atlantic region with 2,855 piping plovers or 35.4 percent. Last was the Great Lakes region with only 110 birds or 1.4 percent. 

Out of the U.S. Atlantic region, coastal Massachusetts had the largest population with 935 piping plovers counted or 11.6 percent of the population. Coastal New York was second (852 birds or 10.5%) and coastal Virginia was third (305 birds or 3.8%). Coastal New Jersey was fourth with 209 piping plovers or 2.6 percent of the population.

The findings of the report also showed that during the winter a grand total of 3,884 piping plovers were recorded at 546 sites. Coastal Texas had the largest amount of birds (2,090 birds or 53.8%), but plovers in the Bahamas (417 birds or 10.7 percent of the winter total) was a new discovery by wildlife biologists and showed some degree of hope for the future. 

Yet, just five years later, the breeding population had declined dramatically and the winter population had increased by only 89 birds. The 2011 International Census of Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) estimated that there was a total of 3,973 piping plovers during the winter census. The breeding census detected 2,771 birds in Atlantic Canada and the Plains, Prairies, and Great Lakes regions of the United States and Canada, with a total minimum estimate of 5,723 breeding birds for the species. Even worse, in 2017, U.S. Fish & Wildlife estimated there was a total Atlantic Coast (both U.S. & Canada) breeding population of only 1,899 piping plovers.

Why are there more people living in New York City per square mile (27,000 people per square mile) than plovers breeding in North America?  Clearly, it’s not easy being a piping plover in a crowded coastal environment. Why? 

Sometime in March or April (depending on where you live), a small pale shorebird approximately 7.5 inches in length with thin orange-yellowish legs and a stubby orange bill arrives to sandy beaches in the northern United States and Canada to breed and start the next generation of piping plovers. 

They have migrated many miles by flapping their petite pale wings from far-away summery places where they have just spent the winter. It can be a rough winged-migration, sometimes through powerful spring storms and strong winds. The journey is frequently done in one long non-stop flight. Not all birds will make it. Some will perish, but for those that survive they often arrive tired and hungry. 

The birds will quickly forage by running, stopping and tilting their tiny heads from side to side over the sand like a robin in search of a worm. Sight is important to finding food for birds. They use their eyes individually, called monocular vision, in which both eyes are used separately to increase their field of view. This give a bird the ability to see two objects at once. It's how piping plovers and many other birds, including robins, are able to find their food within large unvaried landscapes, like a sandy beach or a grassy field. 

For plovers, they forage for worms, various crustaceans, insects, and occasionally small bivalve mollusks. Piping plovers can also hold one foot in front of their bodies and vibrate it in the sand as a wave passes, possibly to bring invertebrates to the surface where they can easily grab them, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

After a long trip, piping plovers may also take a bath in a shallow pool of water to clean feathers and remove parasites. Afterwards, a plover can usually be seen resting in a sunny spot to fluff and preen its feathers clean.

An adult Piping plover after taking a bathe in a shallow pool of water at Sandy Hook, NJ.

An adult Piping plover after taking a bathe in a shallow pool of water at Sandy Hook, NJ.

A piping plover is named for its melodic call, which sounds like a strong, smooth low-pitched whistle – peep, peep, peep. The birds use this call as an alarm bell or as a mating song. 

Plovers perform a number of courtship rituals to attract mates. The rituals normally involve displays and performance activates that varies somewhat from bird to bird. The display most often observed by people is a courtship flight in which a male plover loops through the air, constantly peeping, and swooping very close to the ground to show off that he is good health and robust enough to be a good provider for a prospective female.

Once a male finds a mate, a female will choose where to nest within the couple’s territory. The male will dig several slight depressions, also known as a scrape, into the sand for a nest on or near a dune area. Each potential home will be lined with pebbles or bits of shells. It doesn’t look like much, but somehow these petite shorebirds find it cozy, comfortable, and safe. 

Wire cages are often put on top of of active piping plover nests by wildlife biologists to help protect birds and eggs from predators. The plovers are small enough so they can get in and out of a cage to forage.

Wire cages are often put on top of of active piping plover nests by wildlife biologists to help protect birds and eggs from predators. The plovers are small enough so they can get in and out of a cage to forage.

Sand bags are put around this wire cage at Sandy Hook, NJ to protect the plover nest from tidal and storm flooding.

Sand bags are put around this wire cage at Sandy Hook, NJ to protect the plover nest from tidal and storm flooding.

A female will lay on average 3 to 4 eggs. A pair will work tireless to protect their young, but the odds are frequently against them. Birds which regularly nest on beaches and coastal shorelines are at the same time and place where many people like to sunbathe, surf, fish, picnic, jog, walk their dog, throw a frisbee, collect shells, or just enjoy time at a beach. 

The piping plover became a protected species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act on Jan. 10, 1986. Along the Atlantic Coast in the United States, the bird is designated as threatened, meaning the population will continue to decline if not protected. In addition, many states from Virginia to Maine have designated the piping plover as a state threatened or a state endangered species to give the bird and its habitat even greater protection. 

People are too close. A group pf family or friends are relaxing with their pet dog too close to an active piping plover nest site and a habitat for young to forage. Pets may harass or accidentally kill wild birds.

People are too close. A group pf family or friends are relaxing with their pet dog too close to an active piping plover nest site and a habitat for young to forage. Pets may harass or accidentally kill wild birds.

Yet, since 1986, the threats have increased. The current population is slowly in decline. In New Jersey, for example, a 2018 NJ Fish & Wildlife population study of piping plovers found ninety-six (96) pairs, a 9% decrease compared to 2017 (105 pairs) and the second consecutive year for a decline in the statewide pair number (115 in 2016). The 2018 population was well below the long-term average (117 pairs) and is the third lowest pair number recorded since federal listing in 1986. 

The success of raising a family of plovers on crowded beaches depends on whether they will be able to run a gauntlet of problems and prowling predators from hungry raccoons and foxes, to bullying gulls and crows, to sneaky Norway rats and feral cats. Garbage left on beaches by people, including candy wrappers and soda cans, attracts predators, including foxes, skunks, raccoons, crows, and gulls.

Large gulls and crows can terrorize breeding pairs of piping plovers, causing them to abandon nests. Although plovers may nest again if eggs are destroyed, young raised later in the season often don't survive as well as those raised in May and June.

People pose even bigger problems. Decades of poorly planned coastal development has greatly decreased prime nesting habitat for piping plovers, from wide-open wild beaches to largely managed sandy strips of debris free sand.

Developments near beaches provide food that attracts increased numbers of predators such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes.  Photo: US Fish & Wildlife

Developments near beaches provide food that attracts increased numbers of predators such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Photo: US Fish & Wildlife

Where beaches are protected, people often have to share space with nesting birds. Areas become closed off or extremely limited to protect piping plovers and their chicks during the breeding season, such as in Plymouth and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware, and most recently at Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This action can frustrate some beachgoers and fishermen to conduct illegal activities. At Sandy Hook in New Jersey in 2009, park rangers were searching for someone who removed two incubating piping plover eggs from a nest and damaged fencing that protected shorebirds. In 2012, federal park police were trying to track down someone who stole eggs from two piping plover nests at Breezy Point in New York City during the early morning hours on July 4. 

No matter how bright or colorful signs may be, some people will still enter into fenced off areas on a beach to jog or walk a dog that are clearly marked as “do not enter.” Beach closures often include a prohibition on dogs and kites. They are in place to protect breeding success for plovers from humans or dogs that can harm the birds by stepping on eggs or chicks. Trespassers can also cause adults to leave nests, exposing the eggs to very hot sand temperatures of up to 120 degrees, and can interrupt foraging activities.

Rope fence in place to protect piping plover nesting habitat from people.

Rope fence in place to protect piping plover nesting habitat from people.

Global climate change is also an important growing threat. In 2010, scientists Jennifer R. Seavey, Ben Gilmer, and Kevin M. McGarigal wrote an article entitled, “Effect of sea-level rise on piping plover (Charadrius melodus) breeding habitat” in the Biological Conservation journal. The article points out that climate change is raising sea levels and threatening many low-lying coastal areas and associated wildlife including piping plovers. After assessing plover habitat on the barrier islands of Suffolk County, NY, the scientists found that if plover habitat cannot migrate inward due to human development, sea level rise is likely to reduce breeding areas. Over time, the spread of eroded beaches will increase the likelihood of conflicts between plovers and human recreation. In addition, more intense storms could also limit habitat, as a large hurricane could flood up to 95% of plover habitat.

Although progress has been made to protect piping plovers and identify their habitat, more still needs to be done. Key nesting areas and associated habitat need better protection from predators and human disturbances and greater research needs to be done to more clearly identify threats to habitat and test the effectiveness of recovery actions.

Also, increased public information campaigns are needed in coastal areas to raise awareness of the plover's plight. The little bird serves as an important barometer for the health and well being of our coastal environment. Piping plovers only live an average of 5 years.

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Ways to Protect Piping Plovers:

1. Please, respect signs and do not walk through fenced areas on beaches where threatened and endangered animals may nest. Pedestrians may step on eggs or chicks or flush adult plovers from nests, exposing eggs to predators, excessive temperatures and other dangers.

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2. Don’t approach or linger near piping plovers or their nests. It is exciting to watch this small shorebird as it carries out its daily activities, but being too close can disturb the birds. Bring binoculars or a spotting scope and view the birds from a distance.

3. Be a responsible pet owner. Keep cats indoors and dogs on a leash. These animals can harass or even kill piping plover chicks and adults; and destroy eggs.

4. Pick up trash and food on the beach. Garbage attracts predators such as gulls and crows that prey upon piping plover eggs and chicks. Refrain from feeding gulls, and be sure to bring home all food and food containers you brought to the beach.

5. Report dog walking, vandalism or other suspicious activities near plover nesting areas to your local park ranger or local police.

An adult Piping plover foraging for aquatic worms during low tide along the Jersey Shore.

An adult Piping plover foraging for aquatic worms during low tide along the Jersey Shore.