The search is on for piping plovers

The International Piping Plover Census, which takes place every five years, is conducted in part to answer an important question: where exactly do piping plovers spend their winters? This winter, the USFWS Migratory Birds Division participated in the first ever comprehensive piping plover and shorebird census on the Turks and Caicos Islands, an island group located in the northern Caribbean just east of the Bahamas and Cuba, as part of the effort. And these efforts paid off, finding more than 3,200 shorebirds of 17 species, including 96 piping plovers! Although 96 birds may not seem like very much, it is actually a significant number. Here’s why.


Piping plover with chick at their summer nesting site. Credit: Dave Frederick/Creative Commons

Each fall, piping plovers depart from nesting sites along the North American Atlantic Coast, Great Plains, and Great Lakes and fly south toward warmer weather. Many plovers spend their winters in the southern United States, along the beaches of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. However, many more plovers have been counted on breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada than on U.S. winter grounds, which has been a bit baffling to researchers.


Known range of piping plovers, 2004. Credit: USFWS

Sometimes birds hunker down in bad winter weather, which can make them harder to count, but this unlikely accounts for the entire discrepancy. “It has been a mystery whether plovers were just hidden in places we were already looking or perhaps we hadn’t been looking in all the right places,” said Elise Elliott-Smith of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, which coordinates the Census.


Can you see the piping plovers in this picture? There are actually four of them! It is this ability to blend into their surroundings that protects plovers from predators. However, it sometimes makes it difficult for researchers to spot them as well. Credit: Craig Watson

With only around 8,000 left in the world, piping plovers are federally listed as a threatened and endangered species, so researchers are extremely interested in finding out where these tiny birds spend their winters. Caleb Spiegel, a wildlife biologist with the USFWS Migratory Birds Division, said coordinated international shorebird conservation efforts such as the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative are designed to connect science like the Census with actions to conserve shorebird species throughout their range, including plovers.

“In order to protect a species, it is really important to understand all the places they live throughout the year, so threats in those places can be identified and reduced,” Spiegel said.


Piping plover in breeding plumage. After breeding season, the black on this bird’s forehead and neck will fade, giving it a lighter overall appearance. Credit: Gene Nieminen, USFWS

One promising place to look is the Caribbean Islands, where there is much to learn about wintering shorebird populations. Most bird population data is gained through surveys, which rely on trained workers and volunteers to correctly identify and count numbers of each species in a given area. This can be a huge undertaking. With all the potential habitat in the Caribbean there are just not enough resources and trained surveyors to complete a survey of this magnitude.


There are miles of potential piping plover habitat along the shorelines of the Caribbean. A very large number of skilled researchers would be needed to survey all of the sites. Credit: Caleb Spiegel

Coverage in the Caribbean was extremely spotty during the early years of the Piping Plover Census. For example, from 1991-2001 fewer than 40 piping plovers had been seen in the entire Bahamas. However, with support from the USFWS and several other groups, the Piping Plover Census expanded greatly in the Caribbean in subsequent efforts, resulting in the discovery of over 1,000 piping plovers in the Bahamas in 2011.


A tagged piping plover spotted in the Bahamas. Credit: David Jones

Subsequent banding work suggests that most of these birds are from the Atlantic Coast breeding population. With just over 3,000 birds in this population, this was a major discovery; scientists now know that at least one-third of the population appears to rely on the Bahamas during winter.


The survey team- Elise Elliott-Smith, Craig Watson, and Caleb Spiegel. Credit: Craig Watson

As part of the 2016 Census, Spiegel and Elliott-Smith joined Craig Watson, also from the USFWS Migratory Birds Division, to survey the Turks and Caicos. Local biologists from the Turks and Caicos Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA) and other local groups provided critical assistance in planning the effort, logistical support, and help with field work.


Map of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

“I first made inquiries about piping plovers in Turks and Caicos when I was coordinating the 2006 Census and biologists with whom I spoke were not very encouraging. But some spots appeared to have great habitat on the aerial imagery and we knew they should be explored,” said Elliott-Smith. Few piping plovers had ever been recorded on Turks and Caicos, and no systematic surveys had ever been undertaken, so the three researchers had little idea what to expect. As Spiegel notes, “it’s really exciting and rare to be able to explore a place that can yield new scientific discoveries, particularly if they can lead to conservation.”


The survey team exploring the Turks and Caicos shoreline in search of piping plovers and other shorebirds. Credit: Caleb Spiegel

The survey team spent nine days surveying over 15 islands and islets, focusing on areas along the shore with characteristics that piping plovers prefer, particularly beaches with expansive sand and mud feeding flats exposed low tide, near emergent sand spits and bars where plovers rest during rising tides.


One example of excellent piping plover habitat along the Turks and Caicos shoreline. Credit: Craig Watson

Looking through spotting scopes from a distance to avoid alarming the birds, they identified and counted every shorebird along each beach. While piping plovers have the lowest population of any shorebird they encountered, several species along the Atlantic Flyway have experienced declines, and many warrant conservation attention.


Spiegel using a spotting scope to identify and count shorebirds from a distance. Credit: Craig Watson

In all, the team counted over 3,200 shorebirds of 17 species. This included 96 piping plovers, a significant number considering the small size of the Turks and Caicos Islands and the low plover population. On one remote beach alone, they found 42 piping plovers, including three previously tagged at summer nesting sites from as far away as New Brunswick, Canada.


A large group of piping plovers discovered at a remote Turks and Caicos beach. One of the plovers is already transitioning to its breeding plumage! Credit: Craig Watson

Unfortunately, there were many beaches with quality plover habitat in the Turks and Caicos Islands that the team did not have time to survey during the Census. Many more piping plovers would very likely be found with additional surveys. In the Bahamas, this year’s Census participants, expanded even beyond the successes of the 2011 effort, counted around 200 more piping plovers than ever before. It is clear that as we enlarge our search for plovers in the Caribbean, more birds will be found.


Shorebirds taking flight. Credit: Caleb Spiegel

The discovery of piping plovers wintering in the Turks and Caicos is particularly exciting because many coastal areas there are still undeveloped. This presents a wonderful opportunity to partner with the Turks and Caicos government to conserve these areas, while keeping in mind the importance of tourism to the islands’ economy. Piping plovers, along with other protected species that inhabit the islands, such as flamingos and a rare island iguana, have the ability to attract visitors through ecotourism, which is rapidly growing in popularity with vacationers.

By working together to protect these habitats, Turks and Caicos may sustainably develop tourism while ensuring the safety of wintering piping plovers. Recent protection of the Joulters Cays, the most important wintering site for piping plovers in the Bahamas, as a National Park by the Bahamian Government, is a fantastic example of protecting valuable wildlife resources for future generations to enjoy. In the Turks and Caicos, DEMA has expressed an interest in continuing to locate and monitor piping plovers and other shorebirds and support their conservation.

To learn more about the work being done to conserve migratory shorebirds, please visit the following links:


2 Comments on “The search is on for piping plovers

  1. I just want to say that I will gladly volunteer to overwinter in Turks and Caicos with you guys. I would make that sacrifice for the plovers.

  2. Pingback: Welcome Back — Where Have You Been? | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

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