Imagine floating down the river in a kayak on a warm summer day. In the distance you see a broad expanse of sand peeking out of the water. The sandbar is dotted with small pieces of debris and driftwood, and in the midst of it all, a small sand-colored shorebird sits hunkered down tightly on its nest. It’s a piping plover. Piping plovers nest on exposed river sandbars, reservoir shorelines and sandpit lakes along the Missouri, Platte, Loup, Elkhorn and Niobrara river systems in Nebraska, but where do these birds go when they leave Nebraska for the winter? Do they return to the same place to nest each summer? Based on the results from an ongoing research program, we are answering these questions.
The piping plover is a state and federally threatened migratory shorebird that spends significant portions of the year in different parts of North America. This presents a unique conservation challenge, as knowing what is going on during the breeding season is only one piece of the puzzle. To better protect and manage this species, it is important that we implement conservation strategies from the piping plovers’ perspective. By doing this we are not only able to address issues that affect them during the breeding season but we are also able to address issues that affect them throughout their annual cycle.
Piping plovers spend the winter on beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, southern Atlantic coast and in the Bahamas, but there is only limited information regarding the specific wintering areas that are important to different breeding populations. One way of making connections between the breeding and wintering sites is by placing colored leg bands on birds so individuals can be identified by birdwatchers across the plovers’ range. The Nongame Bird Program at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are leading a color banding research project on the lower Platte River that started in 2008, and their work is paying off. To date, a total of 260 piping plovers have been banded as a part of this research project, 73 adults and 187 chicks, and 33 percent of these banded plovers have been resighted in at least one year after they were originally banded. All of the plovers banded along the lower Platte River receive a light blue flag on one of their upper legs, a metal USGS band on their opposite upper leg and a unique combination of four color bands on their lower legs. The light blue flag is a regional marker indicating that a plover was banded in Nebraska along the Platte River; plovers banded in other regions receive a different colored flag.
Winter sightings show that lower Platte River plovers are widely distributed in their winter range from the southern tip of Texas to the Florida Keys and all the way up the Atlantic coast to South Carolina, with a majority of the lower Platte River plovers being observed wintering along the coast of Texas (see map, page 18). To date, none of the plovers banded along the lower Platte River have been observed in the Bahamas. In 2012 we received our first report of a lower Platte River plover wintering along the southern Atlantic coast. This report was of a lower Platte River plover observed on Crandon Beach near Miami, Fla. This initial report was followed by three reports of different lower Platte River plovers being observed along the Atlantic coast; one plover was reported in Georgia and two were reported in South Carolina. These reports were coupled with photos of these birds to confirm the observations. All four of these plovers were originally banded during the summer of 2012; three were banded as chicks and one was banded as an adult.
The plover pictured here, with its light blue flag and black over yellow, yellow over gray color bands, has been an exciting bird to follow. This bird was originally banded as a three-day-old chick in June 2011 at a lakeshore housing development along the lower Platte River in Dodge County, Neb. It was observed as a 30-day-old fledgling, independent of its parents, foraging on a Platte River sandbar in late July. The next time the plover was observed was November 2011 at Bunche Beach near Fort Myers, Fla. It was observed and photographed on this same beach 15 times from November 2011 to April 2012. This plover was not seen in Nebraska during the summer of 2012, but was reported back at the same beach near Fort Myers, Fla., in August 2012 and has been reported there 11 times during the winter of 2012–13. Many of these winter reports have been provided by local and visiting birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts.
This color banding study has also shown how piping plovers move across their breeding range. Adult plovers nesting along the lower Platte River are likely to return to the lower Platte River to nest the following year, but chicks hatched along the lower Platte River are likely to disperse and nest somewhere else. Piping plovers banded along the lower Platte River have been observed nesting along the Missouri, Niobrara and the central Platte rivers. Piping plovers originally banded in these areas have also been observed nesting along the lower Platte River. In 2012 four lower Platte River plovers were reported nesting along the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska and two were reported nesting along the central Platte River; two plovers originally banded along the central Platte River and 11 plovers originally banded along the Missouri River were observed nesting along the lower Platte River in 2012.
Based on these observations, it is clear that piping plovers do not recognize individual management areas or state borders; they go where the best habitat is available to them. Localized events that alter habitat or disrupt piping plovers in their breeding or wintering habitats may affect the plovers nesting in Nebraska. For example, an oil spill affecting beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, particularly beaches in Texas, could greatly reduce Nebraska’s piping plover numbers by directly oiling birds or contaminating their food sources. Understanding piping plovers’ movements between different habitats and when and where risks occur provides critical information for planning conservation actions in Nebraska. It highlights the need to look at piping plover conservation from the plovers’ perspective and work with people across boundaries to continue progress in the recovery of this threatened species.
For more information about interior least tern and piping plover conservation, visit Nebraska Game and Parks at http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/wildlife/programs/nongame/NGbirds/NGBird_Resources.asp or the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership at http://ternandplover.unl.edu. The partnership can also be reached via Facebook.
Learn more about the terns’ and plovers’ nesting area in Nantucket by visiting the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s website at www.nantucketconservation.org.