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

Back at the skiff, we set off again for another site. When we get there everyone jumps into the shallow water and wades toward a sandbar, scopes over their shoulders. Here it takes an hour to count plovers, and the tally is better than expected: 81 birds in all. Although it is only mid-afternoon, by the time the biologists return to the skiff we must head back or risk getting stranded here as the tide recedes.

After dinner back on Andros that evening, Golder places a satellite map of the Joulters on the table and marks GPS readings for the latitude and longitude of each cay they visited. As he reviews the list of birds, he keeps a running count that totals 326 piping plovers--more than three times the number they spotted last year. It is becoming increasingly clear that any successful conservation strategy for ensuring a healthy piping plover population must include protecting the Bahamian islands and cays they frequent from a wide range of threats, including development, the spread of invasive plants, and sand-mining operations.

Just 10 years ago no one knew that the Bahamas were so important to plovers. A 2001 census recorded only 35 of them in the entire chain. The census, started 10 years earlier by Sue Haig, was part of a USGS-coordinated effort to count the entire U.S. piping plover population every five years. More than a thousand participants counted the birds on their breeding territories, then a few months later spread out across the core of the plover's known wintering area to do the same--walking the beaches from North Carolina south along Atlantic shores and across the entire U.S. Gulf Coast. But winter surveyors found fewer than half the plovers tallied during the summer censuses--a serious challenge if you're trying to conserve the species. Knowing what's going on mostly in the breeding grounds is "like being blind in one eye," says Haig. "If you don't know the full story, you're going to make mistakes in the measures you'd take to protect the birds."

Haig and others suspected that large numbers might remain hidden in the Bahamas, and in 2006 Sidney Maddock, working for Audubon North Carolina, along with local volunteers, mostly from the Ornithology Group of the Bahamas National Trust, set out to cover more of the region. The survey of 66 sites delivered 417 piping plovers. Encouraged by the results, in 2011 the USGS increased coverage of the Bahamas with the assistance of biologists from there, as well as the United States and Canada, and the total rose to 1,066 birds. If the results of recent banding studies (see map, page 51)--under the direction of Cheri Gratto-Trevor of Environment Canada--are any indication, almost all of the plovers that winter in the Bahamas hail from the Atlantic Coast, and the 1,066 represent nearly one-third of the coast's breeding population.

 

Understanding this link is one thing; seeing it is another. The mysteries and marvelous feat of migration quickly become personal. So it was that six months before my trip to Andros I stood on a Long Island beach, my binoculars trained on a nesting plover 75 yards away. I squinted, looking for the bands that would indicate this was a Bahamas bird.

Kerri Dikun, coordinator of Long Island bird conservation for Audubon New York, stood next to me with a spotting scope. She had spent much of her summer monitoring 36 plovers at six different nest sites, including two banded Bahamas birds. Dikun is one of a small army of hundreds of people from 70-plus government and nongovernment agencies and organizations that monitor and protect the breeding plovers each summer.

Up and down the Atlantic Coast, rapid housing development on beachfront property and increased recreational use of beaches beginning in the boom years after World War II have continued to encroach upon the plover's nesting sites, in the area above the high-tide line. But the program to protect nesting sites, begun in 1986 when the United States placed the piping plover on the endangered species list, has proved successful. Between 1986 and 2010 the Atlantic Coast population alone more than doubled, to 1,782 pairs, and the total population has reached roughly 8,000, a bit closer to the species' historical population, estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

And yet 8,000 birds hardly ensures the species' future. One need only recall the fate of another shorebird, the Eskimo curlew, whose populations plummeted in a matter of decades in the 19th century, from hundreds of thousands to a few dozen individuals. Indiscriminate hunting was not the only factor; loss of the grassland habitat the birds depended on during migration was another. Today the Eskimo curlew appears to exist in name only.

On my first day on Long Island, before looking for banded birds, Dikun was slated to check on some piping plover chicks that were close to fledging at Orient Beach State Park, on the northeast tip of Long Island. We drove two hours, then walked another two hours to the end of a peninsula, where a pair of the birds had moved their chicks some days earlier, far away from beachgoers. Dikun, a 28-year-old brunette, her hair pulled into a tight bun to keep it off her neck on the sweltering July day, raised her binoculars and scanned the beach ahead of us, watching for any movement among the stones and sand heaped up by waves.

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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.

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