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Nature Notes: Piping Plover

Ed Robinson
November 10, 2020

One of the hazards of watching the evening news while eating your dinner is that you may end up with indigestion. No, this is not a story about the recent elections – we all need a few months to recover from those. Rather I’m talking about those two-minute clips about disasters and tragedies that occur each day around the world. Sometimes the stories deal with pending environmental crises such as rising ocean levels or the increase in greenhouse gases. But once in a while we are treated to a good news story that gives us a measure of hope for our world.

In Maine we are witnessing the possible recovery of a species that was nearly eradicated by mankind. The tiny piping plover is a fraction of the size of the rebounding African elephant, and its story is perhaps not as newsworthy as saving the California condor, but it is well worth our understanding. This is a story about a beautiful shorebird that was nearly wiped out by human development, and is now being given a second chance by a mass of human volunteers. There are lessons here that might help us prevent the loss of other endangered species.

Photo by Bookguy, iStock

The piping plover is easy to miss even when looking for them along our southern shores. They are subtly colored in white and tan, allowing them to blend into their chosen environment: the beaches and dunes of our coast. This diminutive bird stands just over six inches tall and weighs less than a golf ball. The baby birds look like tiny puff balls when they first venture from the nest to the water’s edge. It is not surprising that most people ignored the plight of this bird in the push to build homes and commercial operations along the coastline. In 1986, when the bird was protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, only 790 breeding pairs were recorded along the Atlantic Coast, with isolated populations in the Great Lakes and Midwest. Those numbers meant the species was at risk of being lost in only a few years unless action was taken to help them.

Charadrius melodus was named for its lovely high-pitched calls, heard during breeding or nest-building periods. The adult has a short neck and round head with a chunky body, white underneath and sandy brown on the back and wings. Juveniles have a plain face with a black bill. The plover often stands horizontal on light orange legs, displaying a short orange bill with a dark tip, looking for food. Both sexes have a black eye and distinctive black stripes across their head and neck, with the male’s chest stripe more prominent during the breeding cycle. The wing span is just over one foot and it is exciting to see several birds on the wing along the shore, banking and stooping in the ocean breezes.

Piping plovers are dependent upon the seashore for food, taking a wide range of marine worms, insects and crustaceans when available. They forage along the upper tidal line down to the water’s edge, darting about and stopping abruptly, using their bills to probe for worms. Observers have witnessed the birds standing near the wave line with one foot extended, beating on the sand as if sending vibrations that might entice worms to the surface.

These birds have two distinct populations, those found along the Atlantic Coast and another sub-species found along the shores of the Great Lakes and Midwestern ponds or marshes. Breeding takes place from Newfoundland down to South Carolina, and migration can take the birds to distant locations like Cuba or Venezuela. The plovers nest above the waterline using rocks and beach grasses to camouflage their nesting sites. As the breeding season begins the male scrapes out a few shallow spots in the sand for inspection by the female. Once she chooses a favorable location, the female adds shells, sticks or pebbles around the edge of the site to further mask its location from predators.

Birds arrive in our region from late March to mid-April, with early arrivals having a good choice of nesting sites and better nesting success. After courting and breeding, the female will lay three to six eggs over a week or so. Incubation of the eggs takes around 27 days with both parents playing a role, and the eggs generally hatch on the same day. After birth the tiny chicks are mobile and able to feed within a few hours but they are completely vulnerable for the first few days of life. In bad weather the parents brood the chicks, trying to shield them from rain and cold using their bodies and wings. If predators like foxes, cats or raccoons threaten on the ground the parents will walk away from their young while dragging a wing in hopes of distracting the predator. Similar sized intruders to a nest site will be chased and given hard pecks to dissuade them.

Historically the piping plover faced the same exploitation as other birds at a time when wearing beautiful feathers on hats or dresses was the height of fashion. The Migratory Bird Act of 1918 ended that problem, allowing the plovers to recover their numbers for the next 40 to 50 years. But the rise in development of roads, housing and other structures near shorelines, along with increased human activities along those shores, put great pressure on the piping plover. The birds are sensitive to disturbance, particularly when nesting and rearing their young, and under pressure will abandon their nests or chicks. In extreme cases the birds may die from stress.

As environmental education and awareness began to blossom in the 1970s, Maine took action to help species like the piping plover and the similarly threatened least tern, passing the Maine Endangered Species Act in 1975. In 1988 the Act was amended to add language directed at habitat protection in sensitive areas around the state. While Maine historically had more than 30 miles of suitable coastal sites for these birds, more than 75 percent of those sites had been lost or damaged by human development. This left barely a dozen sites suitable for the plovers and these were designated Essential Habitat in 1995 to restrict or manage development while protecting known nesting sites.

Rather than rely strictly upon regulations and government oversight, concerned citizens took on the challenge of giving the piping plover a hand in recovery. For more than 30 years, hundreds of volunteers and groups like Maine Audubon have worked tirelessly to protect the birds and their nesting sites, such as Higgins Beach. Fences are erected around active nesting sites with overhead nets to keep out winged predators. Signage along beaches asks people to restrict their activities near nest sites, keeping dogs leashed and not allowing small children to approach the birds when they are visible along the shoreline. It is heartening to see that dozens of people are willing to give up thousands of hours each spring and summer to monitor each beach with a few nests and birds, while offering public education to beach goers.

The great news is that all of those efforts are having an effect. Maine Audubon reported that our state is coming off a third consecutive record season with 98 nesting pairs in 2020 raising 199 fledglings, up more than 10 percent from 2019. Partners in Flight estimated in 2019 that the global breeding population of piping plovers had reached 8,400 birds. Plover populations in the Great Lakes and Midwest are not recovering as well as those on the Atlantic.

While the success to date in restoring piping plover numbers is encouraging, it is important to remember that the birds and their chosen habitats are fragile. The population of the US continues to rise, fueling further development, particularly along our coastlines. During the pandemic, recreation along our shores has peaked as people seek to avoid being shut in at home for long periods. Climate change has already had an impact on shoreline habitat with rising sea levels and increased major storm activity. Researchers are concerned that a couple of major hurricanes along the East Coast during the critical nesting and brooding period for plovers could deal a big loss to the birds.

It is important to celebrate success to date in rebuilding the piping plover population and to support continued efforts. When visiting beaches with birds in residence, enjoy their presence at a respectful distance. Longer term, efforts by groups like Harpswell Heritage Land Trust to protect our shorelines and critical habitat for many species under pressure will help to ensure that the beauty and diversity we value so much will not be lost forever.

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