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Conserving Piping Plovers in North Dakota
Photo Credit: USFWS
The piping plover is a small sand-colored shorebird that nests on the barren shorelines of alkaline (salty) lakes, reservoirs and on riverine sandbars of large river/reservoir systems in the Northern Great Plains. They were named for their flute-like call, which is often heard before they are seen. Plovers nest on the ground in a shallow, hollowed-out bowl lined with small stones. The eggs are cryptically colored, blending in almost perfectly with the surrounding sand and gravel. Both parents incubate the eggs and care for the chicks. If threatened, the parents will do a “broken wing display” to try to attract the predator away from the nest or chicks.
The major threat to the species is loss of habitat due to dam construction, which holds back the sediment necessary to create sandbars, and alters riverine flows. Both of these factors have drastically changed river dynamics and sandbar habitat creation processes. The habitat that remains is at risk due to increased predation levels, human disturbance, and invasive vegetation.
In North Dakota, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) biologists, in close coordination with The Nature Conservancy and many private landowners, have worked to protect piping plovers since 1983. The Service and The Nature Conservancy have developed relationships with more than 150 private landowners who allow plover monitors to access their land regularly. Plover monitors erect cages to protect the nests from predators and they monitor breeding success, tracking breeding pairs from the time they make a “nest scrape” until the chicks fledge.
Photo Credit: USFWS
In the off-season, the team actively works on National Wildlife Refuges and with private landowners to take long-term management actions that benefit piping plovers. Activities include fencing beaches and providing alternate water sources for cattle so that nests and chicks are not crushed, burying or removing rock and junk piles that shelter piping plover predators, uprooting trees in the nearby prairie to remove raptor perches, and replanting areas with prairie plants to reduce runoff and sedimentation in the alkali lakes.
The piping plover population has responded positively to these management actions. The U.S. alkali lakes population has nearly doubled since the mid-1980s despite increasing threats on the wintering grounds and a highly fluctuating population on the Missouri River system. In addition to increasing the piping plover population, actions to improve plover habitat benefit other grassland and shorebird species, many of which are also suffering severe declines.
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