October 1, 2019

Piping Plovers: 3 stories intertwined on Little St. Simons Island

Posted by: Cohen Carpenter

Piping Plovers: 3 stories intertwined on Little St. Simons Island
Header photo from wikimedia commons; attributed: Mdf [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]       

       During this year's Fall Birding Event, along with migrating songbirds and warblers, we have also made special efforts to get eyes on as many of the shorebirds that typically (and atypically) move through this time of year. Coming from their Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding grounds in the northern US and Canada, many species spend brief periods of time on our beaches to rest and add fuel to the tank, before continuing their journeys further south, while some set up camp here for the entire winter. One of our favorites, the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), graces us all winter (as well as other coastal areas in the southeast and the Bahamas), probing soft sands for tasty polychaetes in preparation for next year's migration and mating season.

       Come springtime, it's northward bound for these 7 inch, 1.9 oz. birds. The destination likely depends on the sub-population to which an individual belongs. The preferred breeding habitat for this species exists in three separate locations: The Great Plains, The Great Lakes, and the northern Atlantic Coast.Very faithful to their breeding sites, most individuals return to the same place (often within a few hundred feet) to breed each year.  Therefore, after heading north, there is generally a high degree of separation between the three sub-populations.


*Range map from Birds of North America

       Only when summer ends and wintering grounds are sought, do these three groups come together. And they do so right here on Little St. Simons! There are certainly preferences for wintering grounds among the groups, for example, birds from eastern Canada most often prefer North Carolina, but there is plenty of overlap in these preferences. Lucky for us, it means that we usually will have all 3 at some point during the fall migration. The same way that selection has created these unique preferences for breeding grounds, which have been proven to be viable generation after generation, the Georgia coast has been confirmed as a useful place to be come fall, regardless of where one breeds.

       Unfortunately, you can't look at an individual and know which sub-population it belongs to. Unless it has been tagged. There has been a significant amount of focus on this species in recent years, due to declining populations from habitat loss and other anthropogenic disturbance, and we very often see banded birds on our beaches. A unique set of bands around a bird's legs will reveal through the color combination (sometimes with numbers) exactly which individual that is. Knowing the right people is helpful in decoding these combos. Our guest ornithologist for the week is Adam Betuel, Conservation Director for the Atlanta Audubon Society, and he happens to have friends in high places, geographically speaking. He reached out to his colleagues who are working on these sub-populations to report the sightings and learn more about each individual. It turns out that we got to see the convergence of all three groups this week. Individuals have been confirmed from the Great Plains, Great Lakes, as well as north Atlantic Coast breeding populations! What a treat it is to see this puzzle come together before our eyes, three flight paths merging into one, making a trident on the eastern side of North America.

       Although the species is currently considered threatened (some groups more than others with the Great Lakes group considered endangered on its breeding grounds), current research, conservation, and education efforts hold promise for this species finding the path to recovery. It's not going to find it without our help, though. 

Get educated on the Piping Plover's threats and needs for recovery so you might be able to play a role in their recovery.

For more general Piping Plover information, click here.

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