You try being a plover parent!
When the piping plovers land on Rhode Island beaches in late March, we start heading out there daily to check on them, identifying pairs that will soon breed and lay eggs on the sand, putting up exclosures to protect those nests and the chicks when they hatch out, and keeping an eye on them as they grow their flight wings—which allow them to escape predators and other disturbances.
This year, we were extremely disappointed to discover a two-week-old plover brood—four chicks—abandoned by their parents. It is very unusual for adults to abandon their chicks. This sometimes happens when predators kill the parents, or severe disturbance drives the parents away from the nest. When adults or chicks are frightened by disturbances, they may be unable to access safe areas to feed, and can starve or face predators. The parents usually stay with chicks until about a week after the chicks can fly.
We—the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex staff—were concerned with the brood’s ability to forage safely without the shepherding behavior of the adults. To alleviate the disturbance in heavily visited area with beachgoers, kayakers and dog walkers, we adopted a management technique that is used for terns and deployed a “chick shelter.” We gathered fresh wrack (the piles of plants and such that wash up on the beach) and moved it to the protected roped area, and we provided water in plastic bowls; these would allow the chicks to feed without making a lot of treacherous trips.
While I can’t stress enough that these management techniques should be critically evaluated on a beach-by-beach and case-by-case scenario by a plover biologist because of the risk of predators keying in on the shelters (especially if they are widely used) or decreasing parental attendance to chicks, I’m excited to say that these orphaned plover chicks responded extremely well to the aid and immediately inspected their new shelter and water bowls.
Knowing that our intervention was effective and played a role in helping the chicks fledge was an awesome feeling. I feel good about the 2014 season—on the sites we manage, we had 71 pairs of plover parents that fledged a whopping 98 chicks (that means that an average of about 1.38 chicks survived per pair, usually out of a brood of four). The continued success of this program can be attributed to the many partnerships between organizations, government agencies and landowners who all work together to protect this rare, charismatic shorebird.
But we still have a lot of work to do. And I’m looking forward to the 2015 season and will be focusing on management actions that will increase our productivity.
The Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex manages and monitors piping plovers on sixteen different beaches in Rhode Island. Three of the sites are national wildlife refuges and the remaining thirteen are a combination of state and privately owned properties. We’re grant-funded to support the State of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and the grant is matched by landowners and volunteers that provide vital support to conserving plovers.