Creature Feature: Piping Plovers Face Challenges But Keep On Piping

This cute inquisitive piping plover is doing what he does best—strut across the sandy expanses somewhere near a nationally significant shore. Plover eggs blend in well with beaches, while Piping Plover chicks look remarkably like little balls of cotton. Top photo via USGS, middle photo NPS, bottom photo USFWS.

If you’ve made a springtime trip to an eastern national seashore or visited the Great Lakes you may have found parts of the beach, shoreline, or other natural areas closed off. These recreation area closures are due to the Charadrius melodus, or piping plover. Drawing critics and champions across the country, this tiny bird is causing a much larger stir than its size suggests.

Named for their distinctive bell-like whistles, the piping plover is often heard before it is seen. This sparrow-sized bird can be found in the Midwest and along the Atlantic Coast. The piping plover is sand colored with yellow-orange legs, a black band across the forehead from eye to eye, and a black ring around the base of its neck.

The piping plover consists of three separate populations: the Northern Great Plains population, the Great Lakes population, and the Atlantic Coast population. The Northern Great Plains piping plover primarily inhabits the northern mid-west of the United States and southern Canada. The Great Lakes piping plovers, as their name implies, make their homes around the Great Lakes. The Atlantic Coast piping plover inhabits the Northern Atlantic coast, from southern Canada down to North Carolina. In the winter, all three populations migrate to the southeast, as far south as the Bahamas and as far west as Texas. Piping plovers continue to be protected on their wintering grounds because it is vital for enough birds to return from the winter to breed.

Disappearing Act

Unfortunately these little birds are rapidly disappearing and became a protected species under the Endangered Species Act on January 10, 1986. The Northern Atlantic Coast and Northern Great Plains plovers are threatened – likely to become endangered in the near future – and the Great Lakes plovers are considered endangered – likely to become extinct in the near future. This means that there are penalties for taking, harassing or harming the piping plover and its habitat is somewhat protected.

During breeding season - March through April - plovers make their nests on sparsely vegetated shorelines, dunes, or gravel paths. The males return from the wintering grounds first and occasionally prepare the nests, called scrapes, in advance. Then the males attract mates by performing complex aerial and ground displays. Both the mother and father plover incubate the eggs for the 30 days until they hatch.

Plover chicks are at their most vulnerable until about five days old, when their chance of survival increases; the chicks are unable to fly until around 30 days old. The size and color of the chicks – they’ve been compared to cotton balls – makes them difficult to spot and they usually aren’t noticed until they’re stepped on. Accidental squishing is easy since the chicks squat motionless in the sand when threatened while the parents try to lure the threat’s attention away from the brood. The parent plover primarily does this by giving an award winning “broken wing display.” Unfortunately for the parents, humans, unlike normal predators, are unlikely to be turned from their path by the dramatics of a small bird. Plover chicks are also run over by beach vehicles and some even fall into deep tire tracks and are too small to get out.

The combination of natural predators and bad weather always makes successful breeding difficult for the threatened piping plovers, but the largest threat is increased human activity that directly threatens the plovers’ nests and increasingly limits potential breeding ground. Commercial and residential development limits breeding habitat. Predators such as foxes and raccoons are attracted to populated areas because of the availability of food scraps. General human beach use disrupts many of the nests that are laid.

Restrictions Aim at Resurgence

In many national parks and seashores there is an effort to protect the piping plover during the pivotal breeding season by fencing off areas of the beach for plover nests and taking other precautions. Massachusetts has implemented a three-part program, which consists of targeted predator management, increased enforcement of local beach ordinances on plover-nesting beaches, and outreach and education. Rick Sullivan, Massachusetts’ trustee of natural resources said, “Massachusetts supports breeding habitat for more than one third of the Atlantic Coast piping plover population, and we want to ensure viability of the species for generations to come.” Unfortunately, people do not always respect these boundaries and the piping plover continues to struggle.

Perhaps nowhere are the plovers so well-known as they are at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where controversy over how their habitat should be protected has spurred howls of protest from surf casters and off-road-vehicle drivers. Under the seashore's adopted approach to ORV management, areas along the 70-odd miles of beach are either closed, seasonally open, or open year-round to ORV use. In areas with seasonal closures due to plover nesting, buffer zones around areas with piping plover chicks may be as great as 1,000 meters, a distance criticized by many in the ORV community.

The five-year review of the piping plover recovery plan, conducted in 2008 provides startling numbers that put the plight of this little bird in perspective. The Great Lakes population has fewer than 150 breeding pairs of plovers, in the Northern Great Plains the population goal of 1,300 pairs has not yet been met, nor has the Atlantic Coast population goal of 2,000 pairs. While the most recent review has not yet been released, the 2011 breeding season in Maine was the most successful since 1995 and in Rhode Island plover pairs have increased from 10 in 1986 to 86 in 2011. Hopefully the piping plover, a veritable icon of seashores, is making a comeback!

Where They Are, How You Can Help

Piping plovers can be found at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Cape Cod National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Gateway National Recreation Area, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and many other national parks and seashores.

If you find yourself where piping plovers may be, these are a few steps you can take to do your part in protecting this threatened animal:

—Respect all areas fenced or posted for protection of wildlife.
—Do not approach or linger near piping plovers or their nests.
—If pets are permitted on beaches used by plovers, keep your pets leashed. Keep cats indoors.
—Don't leave or bury trash or food scraps on beaches. Garbage attracts predators, which may prey upon piping plover eggs or chicks.

Haley Hepburn is an intern at National Parks Traveler. She lives in Boone, North Carolina, where she is a senior at Appalachian State University (recently named one of the country’s “Coolest Schools” by Sierra magazine). Haley is studying English, business, and communication and hopes to one day work in publishing. After graduation she intends to teach English abroad and has a special interest in national parks in other countries.