Piping Plover Habitat Model
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Draft Date:
April 2001

Piping plover, Charadrius melodus; Atlantic coast population

Use of Study Area Resources:
Reproduction and migration (piping plovers breed through Canadian Maritimes and the Midwest).  The coastal population ranges from Newfoundland south to the mid-Atlantic states (Haig 1992, DeGraff and Rappole 1995).  They winter in southern Atlantic states and south into the Carribean. Only the Great Lakes/Atlantic coast population is considered here.

Habitat Requirements:
Cover. Piping plovers frequent dynamic coastal beaches (Hayman et al. 1986) and sand spits above the high tide line.  Storms overwash the shore, cutting into dunes or between dunes, creating ‘blowouts’, ephemeral pools, and overwash fans behind primary dunes (USFWS 1996).  Plovers nest on beach areas with gently sloping foredunes, overwash and blowout areas, and behind primary dunes (USFWS 1996). Nesting substrate consists of sand and gravel or shells, on elevated areas away from the water, in which the birds excavate a shallow depression. Nests are typically situated on open soils, but can also be found in sparse or moderately dense beach grass (DeGraaf and Rappole 1995, Haig 1992). Piping plovers will use dredged spoil substrate. The smallest beach area used is about 11,000 sq m (John Atwood Manomet Observatory, pers. com.).

Nest sites are typically spaced 30 m apart, or more, and actively defended by the adults against intrusions by other plovers (Elias-Gerken 1995). However plovers will nest in least tern and common tern colonies along the Atlantic Coast, and have been documented to occur within 25 m of least tern nests (Berger 1987, Bergstron and Terwilliger 1987; both in Haig 1992).   Nesting has been recorded as early as April 20th in Massachusetts, and April 24th in Nova Scotia. Although they hatch within an average of 27-30 days, and most fledge by the end of July, chicks from late nestings may be flightless until the end of August (USFWS 1996).  On the Maine coast, nesting extends only as far north as Georgetown, which Jody Jones (Maine Audubon Society, pers.comm.) attributes to the lack of required dune cover.

Nesting and brood rearing areas are typically contiguous with foraging areas (USFWS 1996). Hatchlings are precocial but remain flightless for several weeks during which time they are tended by one or both adults, which brood them, lead them to and from foraging areas, and protect them from predation (USFWS 1996). Broods may move hundreds of meters from the nest site during their first week of life (USFWS 1996).

Food.  Plovers forage at the waters edge (Goossen 1989), in the splash zone of beaches, on mudflats and sandflats (Haig 1992), and the edge of ephemeral pools (Elias et al. 2000).  Plover adults and chicks feed on invertebrates in the substrate and associated with beach wrack. Plover foods consist of invertebrates such as marine worms, fly larvae, beetles, crustaceans, and mollusks (Forbush 1925, Bent 1929, Cairns 1977, Nicholls 1989, Gibbs 1986, Shaffer and Laporte 1994; all cited in USFWS 1996). Foraging habitat selection may vary from year to year, depending on relative abundance of food in ephemeral pools, tide flats, and ocean intertidal beaches (Elias et al. 2000). A study in Saskatchewan (Brown 1987 in Haig 1992) found that feeding occurred predominantly with 5 m of the water’s edge. During the reproductive season feeding areas generally are contiguous with nesting and brood rearing areas. Jones and Camuso (1994) observed 65 of 453 feeding events over the marsh behind nesting beaches versus 388 on the ocean side. However, Loegering and Fraser (1995 in USFWS 1996) found that those flightless plover chicks on Assateague Island, MD., able to reach bay beaches and the island interior had significantly higher survival rates that those which foraged solely on the ocean beaches. Goldin and Regosin (1998) found higher fledging success for plovers similarly situated in Rhode Island, apparently due to better food supplies. Elias et al. (2000) noted that escape cover (old, dry wrack and vegetation) was more available around ephemeral pools and bay tidal flats than in the ocean intertidal zone.

The rocky coasts of the western Atlantic boreal littoral zone produce an abundant wrack and associated prey base. Based on the amount of foraging habitat available in Maine, which is accentuated by greater tidal amplitude, suitable nest sites may be more limiting than is availability of foraging areas (Anne Hecht, pers. comm.).

Special Requirements:
Though adults are somewhat tolerant of human activities, nests and chicks are vulnerable to disturbance and accidental impacts. Survival on beaches in the Northeast is dependent on restriction of human and predator access. ORV traffic may displace plovers, kill chicks (USFWS 1996), or damage the wrack (Leatherman 1982 in Elias-Gerken 1995) which is an important foraging resource.  Nest monitoring in recent years in Maine has indicated that pedestrian disturbance, beach maintenance and cleaning are significant problems for nesting plovers, interfering with foraging and increasing the frequency and duration of alertness (Jones & Camuso 1994). Pedestrians may trample eggs or flush adults from eggs and expose eggs to overheating or to predation.

Piping plover habitat was mapped using data on known nesting and migration locations and suitability of cover for nesting and foraging (see table, below). Nesting occurrence data was obtained from the Massachusetts and New Hampshire Natural Heritage Programs, and from a report on Maine least tern and piping plover surveys (Jones et al. 1999). The Massachusetts data consisted of points observed up through 1992, and also more recent "Priority Habitat" polygons, drawn by Heritage Program biologists to circumscribe the estimated habitat of a species "based on field reports, first-hand knowledge, topographic maps and aerial photos".  

Beach areas within 1/4 mi of recent plover nests and having suitable cover were scored 1.0; areas within 1/4 mi of historic plover nests and having suitable cover were scored 0.4. Areas within Massachusetts "Priority Habitat" polygons were otherwise scored 0.8 because they are more generalized than point data, but judged by local experts to include suitable habitat. Other areas not documented as nest sites, but with adequate expanses ( > 11,000 sq m) of apparently suitable cover were scored 0.2. Mapping of potential nesting habitat was done only within the Ecological Regions (USDA Forest Service Ecological subunits, Keys et al. 1995) hosting recent nest sites.

Foraging habitat was mapped in the vicinity of recent nesting locations, and also at sites used during migration.  Nesting areas having recent use were buffered to 120 m, and all suitable foraging cover within this zone, or within the Massachusetts "Priority Habitat" polygons, was scored as indicated (table, below); scores of 0.9 and 0.6 indicate relative differences in habitat value, and allow feeding areas to be distinguished from nesting areas when mapped.

Occurrence data for piping plovers during migration were obtained from the International Shorebird Survey (Manomet Bird Observatory) and from Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.  Observation points (ISS) were buffered 1000 m.  Foraging habitat was scored within these buffer zones and in the MDIFW polygons according to cover type.

NWI Designations
(wetlands only)
Cover Types Cover Suitability (0 - 1 scale)
Upland deciduous forest
Upland coniferous forest
Upland mixed forest
Grassland 1.0*
Upland scrub/shrub
Bare ground 1.0*
PEM, L2EM Lake/pond, emergent vegetation
PFOcon Palustrine forest, conifer
PFOdec Palustrine forest, deciduous
PSSdec Palustrine scrub shrub, deciduous
PSScon Palustrine scrub shrub, conifer
PAB, L2AB Lake/pond, aquatic vegetation
L1UB, PUB Lake/pond, unconsolidated bottom
L2US Lake, unconsolidated shore
L2RS Lake, rocky shore
R1UB Riverine subtidal unconsolidated
Rper Riverine perennial
E1AB Estuarine subtidal vegetated
E1UB Estuarine subtidal unconsolidated bottom
E2AB Estuarine intertidal algae
E2EM Estuarine intertidal emergent 0.6**
E2RS, R1RS Estuarine, tidal river rocky shore
E2SS Estuarine intertidal shrub
E2US, R1US Estuarine, riverine intertidal unconsolidated shore 0.9**
M1AB Marine subtidal vegetated
M1UB Marine subtidal unconsolidated bottom
M2AB Marine intertidal algae
M2RS Marine intertidal rocky shore
M2US Marine intertidal unconsolidated shore 0.9**
NOTES *Dunes, vegetated beach ridge - as nesting
**Near active nesting areas, migration staging areas -  as foraging


Elias-Gerken, S.P., J.D. Fraser and P.A. Buckley. 1995. Piping plover habitat suitability on central Long Island, New York barrier islands. Final report submitted to the National Park Service. Unpublished, 242 pp.

Elias, S.P., J.D. Fraser and P.A. Buckley. 2000. Piping plover brood foraging ecology on New York barrier islands. J. Wildl. Manage. 64(2):346-354.

Goldin, M.R. and J.V. Regosin. 1998. Chick behavior, habitat use, and reproductive success of piping plovers at Goosewing Beach, Rhode Island. J. Field Ornithol. 69(2):228-234.

Haig. S.M. 1992. Piping plover. The Birds of North America, 2.

DeGraaf, R.M. and J.H. Rappole. 1995. Neotropical Migratory Birds: Natural History, Distribution and Population Change. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY. 676 pp..

Goossen, J.P. 1989. Piping plover. Hinterland Who's Who. Canad. Wildl. Serv. Ottawa, Ontario.

Hayman, P., J. Marchant and T. Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: an identification guide to the waders of the world. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA. 412 pp.

Jones, J.J. and J. Camuso. 1994. Piping Plover and Least Tern Project Report. Maine Audubon Society, Falmouth, ME. 40 pp.

Jones, J.J., G. Giumarro and K. Williamson. 1999. 1998 Piping Plover and Least Tern Project Report. Maine Audubon Society, Falmouth, ME. 19 p.

Keys, J.E., Jr., J. C. Carpenter, S. Hooks, F. Koenig, W.H. McNab, W. Russell and W. Smith. 1995. Ecological units of the eastern United States - first approximation (map and booklet of map unit tables), Atlanta, GA.

USFWS. 1996. Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) Atlantic Coast Population, Revised Recovery Plan. Hadley, MA. 258 pp.