Pink 26 has been wintering in the Bahamas. Photo by Sheila Connor
January 31, 2015: A major winter storm dropped more than two feet of snow in Boston. But 1,200 miles south, wintering piping plovers—and biologists from the East Coast—were enjoying the relative warmth of the Bahamas’ Andros Island.
One male plover was receiving some unique bling from a biologist: a pink leg band marked “26.” For the first time ever, a group of these palm-sized and sandy-colored shorebirds would head north adorned with a pink band, the color the Pan American Shorebird Program assigned to the Bahamas/Caribbean.
The Bahamas/Caribbean project, a collaboration among the National Audubon Society, Bahamas National Trust, Virginia Tech Shorebird Program, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, the Service and Environment Canada, is helping track plovers during their annual travels and life cycle.
The piping plover was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. Photo by Sarah Fensore/USFWS
In the spring of 2015, Pink 26 headed north but apparently never attempted to nest. He stopped at Masonboro Island, North Carolina, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, and, on his way south, Carolina’s Outer Banks. Surveyors found him wintering in Andros during the February 2016 International Plover Census—a census that, for the second time, put much emphasis on the recently discovered significant numbers of plovers wintering in the Caribbean.
This past summer, Pink 26 checked out Massachusetts, pairing with another plover to breed and incubate a nest on Nantasket Beach. Days later, the pair lost their four eggs, with a crow the prime suspect. The pair tried again, as plovers are known to do, laying in another nest farther south at Third Cliff in Scituate. This time, all four eggs hatched, but one by one by one, three of the chicks disappeared. The last, though, survived to fledge.
Biologist Patricia Levasseur of Massachusetts Audubon cheered once Pink 26, his partner and one surviving chick took to the sky for southern shores.
A piping plover chick runs across the beach at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. Photo by Sarah Fensmore/USFWS
There are many challenges for the birds on Third Cliff, she says, noting that while the sand spit beach is remote, it’s busy with beachgoers, boaters and dogs.
Throughout New England, plovers continue to lose their sandy beach habitat to development and shoreline management, and they face artificially high numbers of predators and ongoing disturbances that impact their feeding, resting and nesting.
Thirty years ago, the future looked grim for these little shorebirds. The summer of 1986, just after the piping plover was protected under the Endangered Species Act, just 550 breeding pairs headed to South Carolina and farther north to breed along the U.S. Atlantic Coast. Sound like a lot? Estimates suggest that for each pair of plovers, at least 450 pairs of laughing gulls spread across our shores. The plovers searched for space along increasingly popular beaches to lay their sand-camouflaged eggs and safely raise chicks that look like cotton balls on toothpick legs.
An intern helps to construct a barrier to help protect piping plover nests from predators at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS
Yet significant progress has been made, with the 2016 plover season marking three decades of dedicated conservation efforts. Federal and state agencies and conservation organizations have stepped up to work with beach owners and managers to develop and make plover-friendly beach management practices the norm. Beach managers, landowners, volunteers, staff and others rope off nests, require leashing of dogs, post warning signs and keep activities outside roped-off areas.
Thanks to those partnerships and plover-friendly beachgoers, the U.S. population has tripled, from 550 to almost 1,700 pairs. In Massachusetts, where numbers have soared from 139 in 1986 to 687 pairs as of 2015, the Service and state announced this summer a Habitat Conservation Plan instituting long-term conservation for the shorebird while carefully easing the challenges of managing recreation on beaches with nesting plovers.
“Beaches are always going to be prime destinations for summer recreation, and they will always be homes for piping plovers and other beach wildlife,” says the Service’s piping plover recovery coordinator Anne Hecht. “Thirty years of work by federal agencies, states, private landowners and local governments have not only yielded impressive progress toward recovery, but they’ve resulted in stewardship practices that will help ensure a future where beaches can provide much-needed homes for plovers and the many other wildlife that benefit from these actions.”
As summer came to a close, biologists like Hecht and Levasseur began looking toward next year, in hopes that Pink 26 and other plovers make their way north for another successful nesting season. With fewer than 1,700 piping plover pairs, each one—and each act of stewardship— makes a difference.
MEAGAN RACEY, External Affairs, Northeast Region