Tag Archives: threatened species

What a big flood means for a little snail at Chittenango Falls


Today, we are hearing from Alyssa Martinez, the summer outreach intern at the New York Field Office. Alyssa is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar through North Carolina State University where she is studying zoology. She brings a passion for environmental education and hopes to share her experiences in the field.


Located at Chittenango Falls, there are slimy, one-footed creatures with a mouth like a cheese grater. That would seem scary, except the creature is the size of a thumbnail and their “cheese grater” mouth, or radula, is for consuming plant matter. These strange critters are snails, more specifically, the Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. We like to call them the “Chit” for short.


A Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail, or “Chit,” the size of a thumbnail. Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS

These small native New Yorkers are found exclusively in the mist zones of Chittenango Falls. The entire population is impacted by what goes on in one small area of the falls. The Chits had a close call when near-disaster struck in 2006.  Heavy rainfall caused a section of rock to break off from the cliff directly above the Chits, resulting in a sharp decline in their population. They are still recovering from this event, but the recent storm and accompanied flooding that rolled through at the start of this month resurfaced fears of losing this threatened species.

Flooded vs Normal Falls

(Left) Flooding at the falls on July 1st, Photo: Matthew Sterritt. (Right) the falls on July 6th, Photo: Alyssa Martinez

Five days after the flood, I joined a group of surveyors from NYS Parks, SUNY ESF, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, and the Service, to visit the falls on a routinely scheduled trip. Uncertain of the impact of the flooding, we set out to collect and monitor the snails. The damage was evident within the fenced off habitat. The high water separated several boards from the bridge across the creek and debris had been washed through the fencing that is intended to keep visitors a safe distance from trampling the small snails.

Trails were closed and areas were still partially flooded so we had to reroute around waterlogged vegetation using our best rock-hopping skills to get to the surveying area. When we finally arrived to start surveying, it appeared the flood may have washed away a portion of the snail’s habitat. In some areas, bare rock was exposed where there used to be lush vegetation growing. Despite the flooding impact, we still found Chits gliding around after taking shelter from the storm.

Falls with Endangered Spec signs

Debris pushed through fencing from flooding. Photo: Alyssa Martinez

The resilient population has survived a rockslide in 2006, so another flood is not going to stop them now. Cody Gilbertson, who spearheads the snail surveys and cares for a captive colony of Chits at SUNY-ESF, estimates there are only about 300 individuals persisting in the wild. We will not know if the flood has left any major impacts on the population until enough population surveys have been completed.

Living exclusively in this small habitat leaves little room for misfortune for the threatened Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. The ongoing captive breeding efforts at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo and ESF will help biologists better understand the Chit’s life history and inform future management of their habitat. Captive Chits have previously been released to supplement the wild population and perhaps increase their overall population numbers.


Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS

Despite their vulnerability, the Chittenango ovate amber snails continue to slide along on their one foot, chewing up vegetation with their cheese-grater mouth with hope for the future knowing people give a “Chit” about them.

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:


Latino Conservation Week! Engage, Experience, Advocate

This week, the Service is taking part in Latino Conservation Week, an initiative spurred by the Hispanic Access Foundation to support the Latino community in efforts to get outdoors and participate in the conservation of our natural resources. Latino communities, faith-based organizations and local partner organizations will hike, camp, and paddle, learn about conservation in their community, and show their support for the protection of our land, water, air, and wildlife.


  • provide Latino families and youth with outdoor recreation opportunities near their homes
  • demonstrate the Latino community’s commitment to conservation
  • partner with Hispanic community leaders and organizations to support local and national conservation initiatives
  • inform policymakers, the media, and the general public of the Latino community’s views on important local and national conservation issues

In celebration of Latino Conservation Week, we’ll be highlighting the activities of Service staff and programs that have engaged, educated and advocated for Latino participation in conservation.

Pablo gazes through the spotting scope at shorebirds on the Rhode Island coast.

Pablo Andres Montes Goitia, international conservation fellow from Uruguay, gazes through a spotting scope looking at shorebirds on the Rhode Island coast. Pablo joined another international conservation fellow and shorebird biologist and doctoral candidate, Pam Loring, during field work for her Atlantic seabird and wind turbine study.

This summer, our Northeast regional office in Hadley, Massachusetts had the pleasure of hosting Alberto Martinez Fernandez and Pablo Andres Montes Goitia, international conservation fellows from Mexico and Uruguay. Alberto and Pablo joined our staff in the field and in our regional office, and engaged with the many science-based, partnership and regulatory aspects of our organization. Alberto works for Orígenes Conservación de Especies y Espacios A.C. in Chiapas, Mexico as a biologist and field ornithologist. His recent work in Cloud Forest restoration engaged the local community to participate in habitat restoration efforts across the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Pablo joined us from the National Directorate of the Environment (DINAMA) in Uruguay. As a biologist and project manager, he has participated in the design and implementation of public policy and plans to kickstart a conservation NGO with other Latin American colleagues.

Alberto and Pablo joined University of Massachusetts Amherst doctoral student, Pam Loring, in the deployment of nanotag tracking devices used to track offshore movement of piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) on the Rhode Island coast. The results from this pilot study will demonstrate the utility of nanotag technology to track shorebird movements, and will be used by federal agencies, such as the Service and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, to inform conservation decision making in marine spatial planning.

Alberto observes as biologists apply a nanotag to a piping plover. Nanotags are lightweight (less than three grams) digital VHF transmitters used to track offshore and coastal movements of shorebirds.

Check back this week for updates on Latin American partnerships and youth education as we continue to commemorate Latino commitment to conservation!