A Rare “Snowbird” Returns
Piping Plovers return to the TCI for the winter.
By Eric F. Salamanca (DECR), Elise Elliot-Smith (US Geological Survey), Caleb Spiegel and Craig Watson (US Fish and Wildlife Service), Sidney Maddock (Contractor for Environment and Climate Change Canada), Simon Busuttil (Turks & Caicos National Trust & Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), Kathleen Wood (SWA Environmental), Bryan Manco (DECR), Luc Clerveaux, Marta Calosso and John Claydon (DECR)
Photo By Eric F. Salamanca
The mudflats and sandy beaches of the Turks & Caicos Islands have long attracted Piping Plovers. However, due to their cryptic colouring and use of remote beaches, we are just beginning to learn of their presence here. The Piping Plover is a rare shorebird that breeds in the United States and Canada and migrates to the southern USA, Caribbean, and Mexico for the winter. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has listed this bird as “Near Threatened,” while the US and Canada have it federally listed as “Threatened/Endangered.”
Wintering birds from USA and Canada spend considerable time in the TCI, probably due to the favourable climate and habitats. Piping Plovers prefer mudflat and sandy beach habitats. Mudflats, also known as tidal flats, are coastal wetlands that appear when shallow flats are exposed by tides.
Mangroves constitute an important part of muddy coastlines, both biologically and for stability. Any disturbance or damage to mangroves, such as clearing or cutting, can cause severe problems, decreasing biodiversity and causing erosion and flooding, thereby affecting the wintering habitats of Piping Plovers.
The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shorebird that nests and feeds along coastal sand, mudflats and beaches. The Piping Plover’s diet includes marine worms, fly larvae, beetles, insects, crustaceans, mollusks and other small invertebrates. When it spots prey, the plover will quickly run after it, stop suddenly, and then quickly snatch it up.
In 2011, many local bird enthusiasts had reported Piping Plover sightings during the winter months, but no authoritative confirmation of the birds’ migration to TCI had yet been made. They were observed in the northern Bahamas at that time (Gratto-Trevor, et.al., 2016). The preferred wintering habitats in the Bahamas are replicated in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Knowing this, in 2016 a group of researchers from the US Geologic Survey (USGS) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (UFWS), in cooperation with the TCI Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR) conducted a preliminary survey and found 96 Piping Plovers and 57 Wilson’s Plovers in TCI. This year (2017), the same group, with the addition of Environment and Climate Change Canada, Turks & Caicos National Trust, the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and SWA Environmental collaborated to conduct a similar study but to cover more areas.
This year’s preliminary results recorded 174 Piping Plovers (78 more than last year), observed at East Caicos, South Caicos, Little Ambergris Cay, Little Water Cay, Fort George and the East Bay Cays off North Caicos. Banded Piping Plovers (e.g. those with coded bands on their legs) were tracked and found to have originated on the breeding grounds in the USA and Canada. This finding, also observed in 2016, confirms that endangered and threatened birds that breed in the USA and Canada spend their winter in TCI. The excellent habitats, including secluded and undeveloped mudflats and sandy beaches, are definitely among the many factors that make TCI an attractive wintering area for many migratory birds. In addition to the large number of Piping Plovers, the survey team found several hundred of another US and Canadian “threatened” shorebird, the Red Knot (Calidris canutus), on remote sand bars near Middle Caicos. This year’s survey also recorded more than 3,500 wintering shorebirds.
The Piping Plover is a small, stout shorebird, with a large, rounded head, a short, thick neck and a stubby bill. It is a sand-colored, dull gray/khaki, sparrow-sized shorebird. The adult has yellow-orange legs, a black band across the forehead from eye to eye and a black ring around the neck during the breeding season. During nonbreeding season, the black band becomes less pronounced. Its bill is mostly black, with a small amount of orange at the base. It ranges from 15–19 cm (5.9–7.5 in) in length, with a wingspan of 35–41 cm (14–16 in) and a mass of 42–64 g (1.5–2.3 oz).
Piping Plovers breed on open sand, gravel, or shell-strewn beaches and alkali flats. Each nest site is typically near small clumps of grass, drift, or other windbreak. In winter, birds prefer sand beaches and mudflats. Migrants are seldom seen inland, but occasionally show up at shores, river bars, or alkali flats.
The Piping Plover is globally threatened or endangered, depending on the location, with fewer than 9,000 individuals in the world. In the US Great Lakes region, it has been listed as “Endangered” and it is considered “Threatened” in the remainder of its US breeding range. In eastern Canada, the Piping Plover is considered an “Endangered” species. In the Turks & Caicos Islands, this bird is listed as “Rare and Endangered” (Wildlife and Biodiversity Protection Bill). It is globally recognized as “Near-threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Critical activities that affect Piping Plover
Many anthropogenic activities can negatively affect Piping Plover populations, including the following: dredging and dredge spoil placement; construction and installation of facilities; pipeline construction; road development; oil spills and oil spill clean-up; construction of dwellings, roads, marinas, and other structures and associated impacts, such as staging of equipment and materials; beach nourishment, stabilization and cleaning; certain types and levels of recreational activities such as all-terrain vehicular activity; predation and disturbance by introduced animals; storm water and wastewater discharge.
It was noted by the visiting researchers that a high tide roost known to support Piping Plover from last year was empty of Piping Plovers this year, possibly due to disturbance from high levels of kiteboarding very close to the roost location. What is usually considered a low impact activity may be significant in deterring roosting in otherwise preferred areas.
What to do to enhance bird conservation
There is definitely a need to enhance habitats and bird conservation in TCI. If we want this endangered and threatened bird to continue to visit TCI’s shores, there is a need to address the deterioration and destruction of important bird habitats.
The coastal dune habitats need to be protected at all times. Stay on boardwalks and existing trails when possible. When walking with your pets on a beach or in other natural areas, please keep your pet leashed to prevent disturbing nesting, roosting, or foraging birds. It might be better not to bring your dog(s) into bird nesting areas at all because it is known that birds have much further flight distances for dogs than humans. The mere presence of even leashed dogs in nesting areas can cause problems (allowing dogs to play at chasing birds is especially problematic). The wrack lines should not be raked up, manually or otherwise. The debris in the wrack lines is one of the most important areas of a living beach’s food web. Man-made trash should be removed but natural debris makes the beach healthy.
Support plans to include important bird areas/habitats in the Protected Areas System. Also, support government or non-government initiatives to protect the natural resources and wildlife of TCI.
If you want to take part in various activities that will promote environmental sustainability, including bird conservation, please contact DECR at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com