For the last few months, every time I visit the beach, I scan the wrack and shoreline for any shorebirds. I am looking for a specific species, the piping plover. And, last week while jogging along the beach at Winding Bay I finally saw them, 11 of them. So I thought I would learn a little bit more about them and relate a summary of that information here.
Piping plovers, Charadrius melodus are a small, and very rare shorebird. Breeding plovers can be found along the northeastern Atlantic coast, Great Plains, and The Great Lakes. The total population size is estimated to be about (~6000-8000 individuals), the majority of which are split between Atlantic and Great Plains populations. Outside of the breeding season, plovers can be found along the southern Atlantic, and Gulf coasts of the US as well as several sites internationally. Of these international wintering grounds the Bahamas is one of the most important.
The significance of Bahamas wintering grounds for piping plovers, while only becoming clear over the last decade or so, appears quite high. A large fraction of the population winters in The Bahamas; perhaps as much as 10-20% of the global population. The wide, sparsely vegetated, natural beaches of The Bahamas are very similar to the expansive beaches they prefer in their breeding habitats in the Northeastern US.
Threats to piping plovers in their breeding grounds appear to derive from habitat destruction, nest disturbance, and high rates of chick mortality due to increasing populations of feral cats, foxes, crows, and raccoons. While adults seem to survive these threats, without young recruiting into the population, the piping plover population has dropped dramatically to as few as a few hundred birds back in the 70-80s.
Conservation efforts throughout their ranges, especially in NY, NJ, and Mass, were instrumental in securing the global survival of piping plovers and now populations are rebounding (> 100% increase since the mid-90’s). Conservation strategies include protecting critical breeding habitats, protecting nests from disturbance by erecting fences around individual nests and intensive public education about the piping plover. Protection in wintering areas has also become a priority and specific coastal beaches throughout their continental range have been designated critical habitat for wintering plovers.
An understanding of piping plover habitat in The Bahamas is just emerging. What scientists know to date, is that large numbers of piping plovers use beaches and flats throughout the northern portion of the Bahamas archipelago. Many of these birds appear to breed along the northern Atlantic coastline, one of the most intensively developed coastlines in the world. However, miles of uninterrupted natural beaches in The Bahamas may provide an invaluable resource for the plover, as well as other migratory shorebirds.
Several species of shorebird resemble the piping plover, so make sure to become familiar with identifying features. Similar species commonly seen on Abaco’s beaches are the sanderling, semipalmated sandpiper, and Wilson’s plover, all of which are quite common relative to the piping plover. Often mixed flocks including all of these species can be seen.
ASAC Conference Abstract:
Conserve Wildlife Foundation:
US Fish and Wildlife Service species recovery plan: