This time of year, piping plovers are returning to beaches up and down the East Coast, preparing to lay eggs and raise chicks in their summer homes. But where have these shorebirds been all winter? Biologists have wondered this for years, and they’re gradually gathering answers.
Piping plovers are found only in North America, with a total of about 8,000 birds. There are three breeding populations, each listed as either threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Many of the birds that nest in the northern U.S. and Canada spend winters along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the southern U.S. and in Mexico and the Caribbean. They spread out across a large area that has not been as well surveyed as their breeding grounds, so new wintering areas are still being found. Scientists discovered in 2011 that about 1,000 birds, or roughly one-third of the Atlantic Coast population, winters in the Bahamas.
That still leaves a lot unaccounted for in the colder months. Surely there are other spots in the Caribbean where piping plovers spend half their lives.
In 2016, a team of scientists from the Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Turks and Caicos Department of Environment and Coastal Resources counted wintering piping plovers on Turks and Caicos during the International Plover Census. It was the first organized shorebird survey done on the chain of 40 islands southeast of the Bahamas. They were pleased to find 96 plovers.
The same group, bolstered by staff from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Turks & Caicos National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (United Kingdom) and SWA Environmental, fanned out to cover more areas this winter and found 174 piping plovers, an increase of 78 over last year.
Although the numbers may not sound impressive, they are significant. They show that the Turks and Caicos Islands are a major wintering area for piping plovers. Eighty-eight of the birds were found in one place, which could qualify the site for listing as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.
According to Caleb Spiegel, a biologist with the Service and member of the survey team, “It goes to show that multiple years of surveys are critical to understanding populations, since there may be variation in how sites are used each year.”
Ten of the piping plovers that were spotted in Turks and Caicos this year sported leg bands that identified them as mature birds that were banded as chicks in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Atlantic Canada. Proof positive that birds we in the Northeast consider “ours” spend half the year in Turks and Caicos.
International efforts, like the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative, connect science, like that gathered through this survey, with conservation. The Service hopes to work with partners to spread the word about the sites in Turks and Caicos where piping plovers were found and encourage their protection.
“We can use the example of the Bahamas,” noted Spiegel. “With extensive efforts by the Bahamian Government, the National Audubon Society, the Service, and others, those sites were named Important Bird Areas, and one was later protected as a National Park.”
In addition to piping plovers, biologists discovered about 400 red knots, another threatened shorebird, in 2017. Historically, there have been few sightings of this bird in Turks and Caicos, and none were seen in the 2016 survey. The birds were found on a sand bar that was not surveyed the previous year.
As migratory birds, piping plovers and red knots need both a home and a home-away-from-home. The discovery of new wintering sites in the Turks and Caicos Islands is big news for these little birds and the people who support them.
Click here to learn more about the 2017 Piping Plover Survey in Turks and Caicos.