Solving the Piping Plover Puzzle

Solving the Piping Plover Puzzle

Piping plovers are famous summer residents of beaches and lakeshores--the most adorable argument against development and reckless recreation. Yet where many spend the winter has long been a mystery. Until now. 

By Don Stap/Photograph by John Huba
Published: November-December 2012

Under an early morning charcoal sky, I turn my face away from the salt spray kicking over the sides of a 27-foot skiff speeding through choppy waters. We are bouncing along toward the Joulter Cays--a group of about 30 low, sandy islands a few miles north of the Bahamas' Andros Island. I hunch down in my seat and glance at the other wet faces on this impromptu water-park ride: Caleb Spiegel, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist; Hardy Eshbaugh, a botanist who specializes in Andros Island plants; and Sue Haig, a supervisory wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Haig, unable to find the windbreaker she thought she'd packed for the trip, is wetter than anyone. Water dripping off her chin, she nevertheless smiles--no doubt because she is about to see what she has been seeking for the past 30 years: a major piping plover winter hot spot, just recently discovered.

The leading authority on the tiny endangered shorebird, Haig has devoted her career to piecing together the piping plover's natural history and full lifecycle. "I went through every museum record, every Christmas Bird Count, every piece of information you could come by to figure out where people had seen these birds in the winter, because we knew we didn't have their winter range figured out," she says. She walked for miles on Gulf Coast beaches and southern Atlantic shorelines in search of plovers, but this is her first trip to the Bahamas. Despite some plover sightings over the years, searching anywhere in the Bahamas--with more than 700 islands and roughly 2,000 cays (reefs made from coral, rock, and sand)--was, she says, like "looking for a needle in a haystack."

A plump, sparrow-sized bird the color of bone and driftwood and with a black brushstroke encircling its neck, the piping plover is most often seen running along sandy shores, its legs moving so rapidly it looks like a toy that has been wound too tightly. The species breeds in three geographically distinct populations: along Great Lakes beaches, on northern Great Plains lakes and river shorelines, and on the Atlantic coastline from Newfoundland to North Carolina. Though piping plovers are relatively widespread, they're few in number. When Haig first began her studies in the early 1980s, biologists estimated there were only about 4,000 left.

Our skiff slows to idle a short distance offshore from a cay where Walker Golder and Matt Jeffery are standing beside their kayaks. Golder, Audubon North Carolina's deputy state director, and Jeffery, a senior program manager for Audubon's International Alliances Program, spent the past three nights camping on the Joulter Cays. By day they walked across mudflats and kayaked in the shallows, working their way from north to south while counting piping plovers and every other bird they saw.

From the beach, Jeffery, sunglasses resting atop his cap, his face sporting a scruffy beard, calls to us cheerfully: "Did you bring the coffee?" His good spirits spring from the 230 plovers he and Golder have seen thus far--"100 at one site!" Golder says--and they still have today to explore other promising areas.

 

The low-lying Joulter Cays, occupying 4,000 square miles, are ideal piping plover habitat. Low tide exposes great expanses of sandbars and mudflats where the plovers and many other shorebirds feed on tiny marine invertebrates such as worms, mollusks, and small flies. At high tide, shorelines that rim the cays' higher ground provide safe havens for roosting. With the tide ebbing, I look at the extensive flats, pocked here and there by pools of water. In the distance are glistening sandbars, ribbons of turquoise water, and the dark-green lines of mangroves that grow along the cays' edges. The sky--deep, blue, splotched with clouds--is a dome without dimensions. The horizon looks like a place we could walk to in a couple of hours.

Haig can't wait to start scouting for plovers. Golder points to a sandbar a couple of hundred yards away. "Let's look at the mudflats on the other side," he says. He picks up his spotting scope and leads the way. We tromp through mud the consistency of wet cement. I try to find the right stride for the ankle-deep goop, but every few steps one leg sinks in halfway up my shin. Within 10 minutes I've lost a snug-fitting water shoe. I squat down and fish around for it. As I tug the shoe out of the mud, I lose my balance, lurch forward, and get my hands in front of me just in time to avoid a mud pie in my face.

Golder and Jeffery have been slogging through mud like this for days, often dragging their kayaks behind them. Counting shorebirds in a tropical paradise sounds easy, but clearly it's not. The days are long, and when the biologists are not paddling kayaks or trekking through mud, they're standing for long periods in neck-ache positions as they squint through their scopes.

After an hour at the sandbar, Golder estimates that 900 or more shorebirds are roaming the flats beyond it. When the tide comes in, forcing the birds into a tighter crowd, he wants to do an exact count. As soon as the water is deep enough for the skiff's outboard, we settle in among the kayaks and daypacks. Our captain, Franklin Riley, a local man who knows how to navigate this shallow water, wastes no time in getting us to within a half-mile of a nearby cay. Golder motions toward the cay's beach: "That's the white stuff I want to get a look at." In knee-deep water, the biologists wade to a sandbar and set up their scopes. Golder, Jeffery, Haig, and Spiegel spread out and for half an hour stand like statues as they peer through their scopes. Among the gathering of shorebirds, they find 15 piping plovers.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Don Stap

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

What a success story!

Having been on the outskirts, observing Dr. Haig's struggle to keep these birds in the forefront of investigation in the 80's, this followup must be a thrilling vindication of her faith in finding and restoring the habitat of an endangered species. Bravo!!

Plovers

Thank you for your work. It is much need for the Plover. In the 90's I
learned from a friend who was assisting w/ research on them, that
there was concern. Thank you for all you do.

Now we know where they are we

Now we know where they are we can get rid of them and the corruption they have created. Because of this bird the Audubon Society has sold their soul and the NPS is now a corrupt communist organization.

Get Over Yourself

This is just ridiculous. The NPS has not in anyway sold its soul because of this bird, or any bird for that matter. I am going to go on a guess, though I could be wrong, that this commenter is angry because they aren't allowed to drive on certain sections of beach because these birds need their habitat to nest in. Therefore, since this bird makes it so I can't drive on the beach, lets exterminate it. It is a nuisance to me and a minority of others, so lets get rid of it. Do you see how ridiculous that sounds? Probably not, but many others do, and you are just showing how little you actually know. Numerous animal species, not just birds, are being eradicated because they are a nuisance to man, and you want to add one more to the list? Your ignorance and selfishness are absolutely disgraceful. Get over your ego and learn that we live with nature, not above it. We only have this one planet to live on, and if you destroy one species, they are gone forever. The Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and several other bird species have been eradicated due to humans either viewing them as a nuisance, or destruction of their habitat. Learn to live with nature, not dominate over it.

Why don't you "Get over youself"(and this bird)

What is ridiculous is your assumption that people are angry because we can't drive on a section of beach. That is how you all justify the actions taken by the Audubon. What has people angry is a loss of their ability to earn a living. A lot of these local people can go back generations and tell you how their families through many struggles, perservance and hard work carved out a living that is steeped in tradition. You insult them and their ancestors with your "Get over yourself and driving on a beach" comments. I can assure you that where ever your home is located, or your workplace, that it was once home to some living animal. Are you prepared to give up your job, so that an animal can return? I sincerely doubt it. I wonder do you see dinosaurs walking around? No, because the world has evolved and maybe just maybe God's plan wasn't to keep the Piping Plover around forever. Before you put down an entire area of hard working individuals, who catch the fish you eat, take care of those beachs long after you have returned home, pay a hell of a lot more in state and county taxes BECAUSE you show up each summer to sit on the beach, why don't you worry about their ability to provide for their families instead of making sure the Plover has a nesting area. The Plover isn't even local to some of these beachs, but what the hell right? Just shut it down because we are the Audubon Society and we are more important than those people who live there. I have been to several beaches in my life around the world, and one thing I have noticed, is that the Plover doesn't give a damn whether the beach is empty or packed with humanity, seals, or anything else. Why don't you and your fellow birdwatchers (who by the way, contribute less to protecting your beloved speicies than any other group) stop using the birds and their "habitat" as an excuse to ruin lives. Or better yet, why doesn't you and your fellow Audubon members write checks to those families who have lost their businesses? Oh wait never mind, giving isn't what the Audubon society is about.

Seriously

Yes, because humans have a tendency to corrupt, let us get rid of the current thing we believe is causing that corruption. So yes, let us encourage deliberately wipe a species off the planet entirely because we feel the Audubon Society has been corrupted and is not heading in the direction we want it to. Yes, if only the Piping Plover were extinct, we might see that this organization might suddenly function as though humans were not involved. And while we're at it, let's cut down all of the California redwoods because they obviously are corrupting the Sierra Club. And let's just destroy all of the tropical rainforests that are corrupting the Rainforest Action Network. And Right Whales simply need to go because the Sea Shepherd Society is DEFINITELY communist. And.... enough said.

Seriously

Yes, because humans have a tendency to corrupt, let us get rid of the current thing we believe is causing that corruption. So yes, let us encourage deliberately wipe a species off the planet entirely because we feel the Audubon Society has been corrupted and is not heading in the direction we want it to. Yes, if only the Piping Plover were extinct, we might see that this organization might suddenly function as though humans were not involved. And while we're at it, let's cut down all of the California redwoods because they obviously are corrupting the Sierra Club. And let's just destroy all of the tropical rainforests that are corrupting the Rainforest Action Network. And Right Whales simply need to go because the Sea Shepherd Society is DEFINITELY communist. And.... enough said.

Wow. It is so useful to

Wow. It is so useful to remain anonymous and make such statements with absolutely no documentation or evidence to support your claims. Unbelievable.

Wow. It is so useful to

Wow. It is so useful to remain anonymous and make such statements with absolutely no documentation or evidence to support your claims. Unbelievable.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.