Featured Rare Bird of the CT River: Piping Plover

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) Fun Facts

Length: 6-7 inches long
Wingspread: 14 to 15 1/4 in.
Favorite Food: Marine worms, fly larvae, beetles crustaceans, mollusks, and other small marine animals and their eggs..
Nest: Simply a depression or hollow in the ground on the beach above the hightide line and areas devoid of vegetation or sparsely vegetated; sometimes lined or adorned with pebbles or shells
Eggs: 3-4 grayish or sandy-colored laid between April to May; incubated for 27 days
Range: Atlantic coast population ranges from Newfoundland, south to Virginia. Winters along the Atlantic Coast from South Carolina south to Florida and west to Texas.  Also, Bahamas and the Lesser Antilles.

Piping plover
Piping Plover ( (Photo by Anthony Zemba)

The Piping Plover is a stout little shorebird related to sandpipers (Order Charadriiformes). Piping Plovers are listed on the State of Connecticut Endangered Species Act as a threatened species and considered federally threatened. The Connecticut River estuary is one of the top six sites or so in Connecticut that supports successful breeding pairs each year.

Piping Plovers breed in sparsely vegetated open sand, gravel, or cobble beaches frequently adjacent to sand dunes (Elliott-smith et al, 2004, and Degraaf et al., 2001). The Atlantic Coast population breeds on sandy beaches along the east coast of North America, from Newfoundland to South Carolina. There are about 12-15 nesting localities in CT, with some localities supporting multiple nesting pairs.

Piping Plover arrive in Connecticut from late March to early April, after spending the winter along the Southeast US coast, the Gulf coast, or on islands in the Caribbean (Elliott-Smith & Haig, 2004).  Starting the second half of April, these charismatic shorebirds lay 3-4 eggs in a scrape in the sand just above the high tide line.  Wildlife technicians typically enclose nests during incubation (25-31 days; Elliott-Smith and Haig, 2004) using wire cages that the birds can walk through but predators can’t. The adults, nests, and chicks have effective protective coloration, which provides excellent camouflage amongst the sand, shell hash, and wrack line of the beach. The chicks are mobile and able to find their own food (small invertebrates including marine worms, crustaceans, and mollusks) soon after hatching and capable of flight after 20 to 32 days.  Pairs will re-nest if the first nest is washed away by spring tides or lost to predation or disturbance.  By early September adults and hatch year birds are moving south to wintering grounds.

Populations of this species were listed as endangered or threatened under provisions of the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 as amended on January 10, 1986 (USFWS 1985, 1996) depending on the geographic locality of three distinct geographic regions as follows: The Atlantic Coast, the Great Lakes, and the Great Plains. Connecticut birds are part of the Atlantic Coast population and are considered federally threatened. Major threats to the breeding success of this species in CT include predators such as foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, feral and free-roaming cats, free-roaming dogs, predatory and scavenging birds, and humans.  Extreme heat or cold stress may impact nesting success as well. Connecticut beaches tend to be narrow in cross sectional profile and thus Piping Plovers may be exposed to intense human pressure proximal to their nesting sites on the high beach above the high tide line.  Yet the linear productivity curve since 1984 (i.e., seasonal productivities averaged over the time from 1984 to 2018) remains at or above 1.5 chicks per pair (Saucier 2018) which is the productivity goal set for nesting pairs in the Federal recovery plan (USFWS 1996). This success is attributed to intense management and outreach efforts by a dedicated group of volunteers that operate along the CT coastline (Saucier 2018).

As the weather warms throughout the month of May, and the state slowly begins to reopen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, larger crowds may begin to form on our beaches.  Where one sees signs informing the public of beach-nesting birds such as the Piping Plover, please respect the warnings to stay out of roped-offed areas demarcating their nesting territories.  If we respect their space, and continue to “share the shore” responsibly, we will be able to avoid the government closures of beaches supporting nesting pairs of this federally threatened species.

One can find more information on Connecticut’s rare species at the following link:

https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Endangered-Species/Endangered-Species-Listings/Endangered-Threatened–Special-Concern-Species

Information on the Connecticut Breeding Bird Atlas can be found here: http://www.ctbirdatlas.org/

Cited:

CTDEP/CTDEEP. 1992, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2004, 2010, 2015. Connecticut’s Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species. State of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2015: http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?a=2702&q=323488&depNav_GID=1628

Elliott-Smith, E. & Haig, S. M.. (2004). Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/002

DeGraaf, R. M., & Yamasaki, M. (2001). New England Wildlife: Habitat, Natural History, and Distribution. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England.

Saucier, L. (2018). Where the beach meets the road: shorebird conservation in an increasingly urbanized state. In: Connecticut Audubon Society: Connecticut State of the Birds. 2018.

Terres, John K. (1980). The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds, Alfred A. Knopf, NY. 1109 pp.

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region. (1996). Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) Atlantic Coast Population revised recovery plan. Hadley, MA. 258pp. Retrieved May 9, 2020 from:
https://www.fws.gov/northeast/pipingplover/pdf/entire_plan.pdf

Contributed by Anthony Zemba and Amanda Kenyon.

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