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

"Here's where I begin to get nervous," she said. A fox had been roaming the peninsula all summer, which might explain why a week earlier one of the four chicks from this plover family went missing. Dikun stepped forward slowly. If the birds remained motionless, it would be nearly impossible to spot them. They can appear for a moment, run a few feet, then stop and simply disappear into the background like jigsaw puzzle pieces set into place.

"There," Dikun said. "There they are. And there are still three chicks." Despite the time it took to get to these birds, we watched them for only a few minutes. As ground-nesting birds, piping plovers are easily disturbed by human activity, and easy pickings for many predators. On our walk back, Dikun showed me one of the "exclosures"--a 10-foot-diameter cylinder of turkey wire--that are erected around plover nests to keep out raccoons, foxes, gulls, dogs, and feral cats, to name a few common predators.

Near the end of our walk back, Sue Wuehler, manager of Orient Beach State Park, picked us up in a four-wheel-drive park vehicle. We approached a roped-off section of the beach posted with "keep out" signs explaining that endangered species may be nesting in the area. A man, oblivious to the park vehicle approaching, casually lifted the rope and walked inside--to pick up some stones for his daughters he said when Wuehler asked what he thought he was doing. A short but pointed lecture followed. "People see mountains and forests and they think 'nature,'" Dikun later said, "but they don't think of beaches the same way."

The following day we visited several beaches in heavily populated areas, including a private beach open to club members only--and to two Bahamas plovers. One of the banded birds ("light green-black" for the band combination on its right leg) was alone, its nest lost to predators a few weeks earlier, but the second bird ("blue-red") was holding its own. Earlier, however, this bird and its mate had moved each time someone tried to set up a protective exclosure around them, beginning a new nest at every attempt. "We had to give up on the exclosure," Dikun said. "Now we're just hoping no predators get to them."

We walked east down the beach near the waterline, staying as far as possible from the roped-off nesting area. Dikun set up her spotting scope about 75 yards away. "An adult is still sitting on eggs," she said. "That's good."

In a few weeks this bird--all of two ounces--would likely set off on a 1,000-mile-plus journey back to the Bahamas and spend the winter near where it had been banded. If that's the case, it could fight the headwinds of bad weather, locate places to rest on beaches that have not been degraded by development or "beach stabilization" projects, dodge off-road vehicles, elude predators, and all the while stay on course over open waters.

Typically, the adults leave first, followed by the young, but there would be no young for "blue-red" and its mate. A couple of weeks after I'd left, Dikun wrote to say that a predator had made quick work of the eggs.

 

Something more insidious than a fox or feral cat is creeping over the beaches in the Bahamas, a shrub with thick, smooth oblong leaves: Scaevola taccada, commonly called white inkberry. This alien from the Pacific--often accompanied by another invasive exotic, the Australian pine, Casuarina equisetifolia--is covering the sandy place just above the wrack line, destroying much of the kelp-strewn area where the piping plovers rest at high tide.

Both plants are gaining a foothold in the Joulters. And as we look for plovers at several sites on North Andros's eastern shore, we find the invaders nearly everywhere. No one has been tracking the plants' spread, but Hardy Eshbaugh, a former Audubon board member who co-led field courses on Andros for Miami University from 1978 to 1995, is shocked by how many beaches have been taken over by white inkberry since he was last here.

One local business owner is trying to help combat the invading plants. Brian Hew, owner of Kamalame Cay, an exclusive resort that caters to celebrities, removed the white inkberry and Australian pine covering his resort's beaches. And the plovers came back. When we visited him, he and Golder wound up chatting about setting up observation stations for his guests and creating artificial islands where shorebirds could roost.

In the end, the trip's piping plover grand total is 461 birds, more than five percent of the species' total population. Finding this many birds in a few days (how many more are out there?) makes Andros Island and the Joulter Cays invaluable to the Atlantic Coast population.

A few weeks later Jeffery trades in his kayak for a seat at a board meeting at the Bahamas National Trust, a non-governmental organization commissioned by the government to run the national park system*. The new data help make a convincing case that efforts to preserve the Joulters will be key for protecting piping plovers--as well as the Bahamas' tourism-based economy. Andros Island and the cays surrounding it are among the world's premier bonefishing sites. As luck would have it, good bonefish habitat is good plover habitat. Bonefish, the Formula 1 race car among fish, provide what is often referred to as the ultimate saltwater fly-fishing experience (an experience that raked in nearly $141 million in 2009).

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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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