Piping plover on Great Iguana Island. Credit: Caleb Spiegel, USFWS.
Piping plover on Great Inagua Island. Credit: Caleb Spiegel/USFWS

Neugyen family looking at a piping plover flock. Credit: Caleb Spiegel, USFWS.
Neugyen Family looking at a piping plover flock. Credit: Caleb Spiegel/USFWS

Counting to a thousand: The International Piping Plover Census in the Bahamas

The piping plover has a distinctive call and charismatic nature that makes it a favorite of many birdwatchers. Unfortunately, it's a rare find for birders. The piping plover is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and has a worldwide population of about 8,000 birds. The piping plover breeds in the summer on Atlantic coast beaches, the Great Plains, Canada prairies and in a small area in the Great Lakes. The birds winter along the southern Atlantic coast of the U.S., the Gulf Coast, the northern Caribbean and a small portion of Mexico.

The birds are counted every five years on both their breeding and wintering grounds. The effort, coordinated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, is called the International Piping Plover Census. For years, biologists have been troubled by consistently lower numbers of birds found in the wintering grounds when compared to the breeding grounds. "In 2006 it became apparent that we were just kind of scratching the surface and there was quite a bit more habitat that we had not covered and potentially many more piping plovers in the Bahamas," said USGS biologist Elise Elliott-Smith, coordinator of the International Piping Plover Census.

"We knew that we were missing some of the birds," said Caleb Spiegel, a biologist in the Migratory Birds Division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 's (Service's) Northeast Region and a participant in the piping plover census. "In order to really protect a species you have to think about its entire life cycle."

The Service provided much of the funding for a very large and unique international effort of both government and non-government groups to get a more accurate count of piping plovers wintering in the Bahamas. The area was known to have a large wintering population, though the islands were never comprehensively surveyed.

In January and February of 2011, the Service partnered with the USGS, National Audubon Society, Canadian Wildlife Service, Bird Studies Canada, Bahamas National Trust and several other groups for an unprecedented effort to count wintering piping plovers. The effort meant more people, more coordination, more eyes on the ground and most importantly, more birds discovered. Biologists were able to access areas of prime piping plover habit, some of which had never been surveyed before.

"In one remote island location we saw more than 250 piping plovers," said Spiegel. "That's just amazing for this species, especially when you consider the small number of individual birds in the total world population. Piping plovers tend to be dispersed on their wintering ground, with only one other area (South Padre Island, Texas) ever reporting a greater concentration in one location."

Conducting this bird count was no easy task. Biologists found fairly large flocks of shorebirds and used high-powered spotting scopes to scan them from a distance - get too close and you run the risk of scaring the birds away. It's also a challenge to distinguish between similar-looking species. The effort paid off, as biologists counted more than 1,000 individual piping plovers, distinguishing the Bahamas as hosting the second-highest wintering population in the world. The 2006 survey had found 417 birds. Biologists credit the higher number of birds counted to the increased census effort.

Now that they know there are more wintering piping plovers in the Bahamas, biologists are exploring ways to better protect the birds, including undertaking a collaborative effort led by the National Audubon Society to get critical Bahamian wintering sites designated as Important Bird Areas. "Now that we know some of the hot spots, we can get a better idea of local populations and what they're doing - whether they're stable or declining," said Spiegel. "These are areas that we now want to protect during the time that piping plovers are there. And that is something we can do with the cooperation of Bahamas National Trust and other local groups." Efforts will now focus on monitoring the local piping plover populations in the Bahamas, assessing threats and identifying ways to protect the birds. Potential threats to the birds include development, predation from feral cats and dogs and exotic vegetation that can destroy the bird's habitat.

"We're looking forward to partnering with the National Audubon Society and other organizations to develop a better understanding of the needs of the birds on the wintering habitats here," said Predensa Moore, Grants & Projects Administrator for the Bahamas National Trust. "Our ultimate goal is to develop a complete database on the full life cycle of this precious species and use it as a tool to teach people about coastal awareness and cleanup, removal of invasive plant and animal species and restoring and managing habitats."

"The ultimate goal is conservation of the piping plover across habitats used throughout their life cycle, for their breeding grounds, migration and their winter habitat," said Elliott-Smith. For a species like this that has international distribution and is migratory, these international efforts and collaborations are essential to the conservation of the species. In addition to the piping plover, biologists counted the Wilson's plover and the snowy plover for the census. They also noted a surprisingly large number of other shorebird species in the census area.

"As a whole, we're all really amazed at how many wintering shorebirds were found," said Spiegel. "It really shows us that we need to pay more attention to the Bahamas as an important wintering area for shorebirds." Shorebirds can serve as a good indicator of the health of a coastal ecosystem. "They're very sensitive, so they are some of the first ones to be affected if something's not right in their environment," said Spiegel.

The piping plover survey illustrates the importance of collaborative shorebird conservation efforts across international boundaries. The Service's Migratory Birds Division is in the process of putting together an action plan for the entire Atlantic flyway to outline a number of things that scientists, wildlife managers and the public can do to protect shorebirds as a whole.

Story Update: In February 2012, sites that had the highest concentrations of wintering Piping Plovers during the 2011 Bahamas Plover Census will be resurveyed. The Service's Division of Migratory Birds will participate in this effort, led by the National Audubon Society in partnership with the Bahamas National Trust. The survey will identify critical wintering locations for the species in order for them to be considered for Important Bird Area status. This designation is afforded to areas of international biological significance, often leading to habitat protection.

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