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South Carolina's Safe Havens
by Jennifer Koches
Photo Credit: Kaiti Titherington, USFWS
In Summer 2013, staff at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine stumbled across a wonderful surprise—a female piping plover (Charadrius melodus) walking along the shore.
The bird had chosen the protected beaches of the refuge for its summer nesting habitat. She was banded just months earlier by Virginia Tech researchers and staff at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) South Carolina Field Office and Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex while wintering on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Each year piping plovers embark on a 4,000-mile odyssey, from their nesting habitat in northeastern states to their wintering habitat along southern Atlantic coast and the Caribbean, and back again. These diminutive birds flock to the same beautiful shores that attract people. The development of the shoreline for recreation has limited the number of available nesting sites, and is the primary reason for the species' decline.
The Atlantic Coast piping plover population was listed as threatened in 1986. For nearly a decade, recovery efforts focused primarily on the species' breeding territories. However, multi-national census efforts in 1991 and 1996 shed new light on the importance of the wintering habitats for the species. These surveys resulted in the greatest numbers of wintering and breeding piping plovers ever recorded. Still, there was much work to be done to identify and protect the bird's critical wintering habitats. Findings from statewide survey efforts led by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in 1997 through 1999 further demonstrated the importance of wintering habitat for the species in the Palmetto State and beyond. In 2001, critical habitat was formally designated for wintering piping plovers, and currently includes approximately 62 miles of South Carolina's coast.
Researchers continue to document the importance of adequately protecting wintering habitat along South Carolina's coast, which is essential for such incredibly fragile and imperiled species as the piping plover. South Carolina Field Office staff works with coastal communities to identify and protect critical shorebird habitat. Much of this work has been an educational process, with the ultimate goal being one of helping South Carolina's coastal communities embrace the fact that their coveted beaches are used not only by humans, but also by species that truly have no other place to call home. If not afforded adequate undisturbed places to overwinter, rest, forage, and build fatty stores, birds like the piping plover would not be successfully making the journey north to return to breeding territories.
The discovery of the piping plover at Rachel Carson spurred rigorous tracking and monitoring efforts through the summer. Biologists documented that this bird and her mate produced and successfully fledged four chicks by July 2013. In November 2013, she returned to her wintering grounds on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, where she was banded not quite a year earlier.
The birth of another generation of piping plovers at Rachel Carson brings hope for the species' future. Working with residents and visitors in coastal communities, the Service will continue to monitor the species and protect these safe havens.
Jennifer Koches, a public affairs specialist in the Service's South Carolina Field Office, may be reached at email@example.com or 843-727-4707, ext. 214.
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