Atlantic Coast piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) are a small, sandy-colored bird with a black band on their forehead and neck, orange bill with a black tip, and orange legs. Piping plovers are solitary ground nesters which prefer to nest in sparsely vegetated, sand-flats, shell-flats, and sand-spits on coastal beaches from Canada to North Carolina. Plovers form nests by scraping shallow depressions in the sand with their breasts, wings, and feet. Plovers line the depressions with tiny stones or pieces of shell. Plovers lay up to four eggs per nest and both males and females incubate the eggs for an average of twenty-eight days. Piping plovers rely on cryptic coloration to hide from predators while sitting on their eggs. Nesting in open areas free of visual obstruction allows the parents to see predators coming. Piping plover chicks are precocial and leave the nest shortly after hatching. The plover chicks rely on both parents to lead them to food sources, shelter them from hot and cold temperatures, keep them dry in the rain, and for protection from predators. Piping plover chicks learn to fly or fledge within twenty-five days.
The tiny piping plovers use distraction and secretive behaviors to breed successfully. Instead of attacking predators like terns, piping plovers distract predators by calling or feigning a broken wing to lure a threat away. Piping plovers will also secretly slink away from a nest or their chicks to avoid detection by a predator and return when the threat has passed. Pedestrians, over-sand vehicles, and predators will cause piping plovers to flush from nests or leave their chicks. As plover parents leave nests or chicks to lure a threat away, the eggs and chicks are exposed to other predators and unfavorable temperatures. Frequent disturbance may also lead to abandonment, resulting in lowered hatching and fledgling numbers.
In 1985, the Atlantic coast piping plover was listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act (Federal Register 1985). Despite a population increase from 790 plover pairs in 1986 to 1,890 plover pairs in 2007, degradation of habitat, human disturbance, and intensified predation pressure continue to be limiting factors for piping plovers and other beach dependent birds on the Atlantic seaboard. Limiting factors have reduced the amount of optimal breeding habitat available and caused disturbance, which contribute to poor reproductive success of piping plovers and other beach nesting species. For example, construction of resorts, homes, and coastal engineering such as jetties and seawalls reduced piping plover nesting. Peak beach visitation occurs from April to September and coincides with breeding of the beach nesting piping plover. Piping plovers will alter their habitat selection and feeding behaviors in response to the number of humans on a beach. Food and garbage left by recreational users or resorts attracts mammalian and avian scavengers, which also prey on the nests and young of shorebird species. Depredation is a major cause of the reduction of recruitment and production of ground-nesting birds.
USFWS Atlantic Coast Piping Plover websitePiping Plover Factsheet (pdf)
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Over the past 200-300 years, these modern-day descendants of domestic horses have adapted to the hardships of living near the ocean. Prior to the refuge's establishment in 1943, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchased the ponies and continues ownership to this day. The Firemen are allowed to graze up to 150 ponies on refuge land through a Special Use Permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.