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Piping Plover Persevere

How did the hurricanes affect shorebirds of conservation concern?

By Eric F. Salamanca*, Elise Elliot-Smith**, Caleb Spiegel***, Jen Rock‡, Beth MacDonald,
Kathleen McNary Wood‡‡‡, B Naqqi Manco*, Katharine Hart* and Nicole Caesar*
*Department of Environment and Coastal Resources, Turks & Caicos Islands
**US Geological Survey , ***US Fish and Wildlife Service,
‡Environment and Climate Change Canada, ‡‡SWA Environmental
Photos By Dr. Eric F. Salamanca

An international team of researchers has just completed a survey of the Turks & Caicos Islands to document the impacts of Hurricane Irma and Maria on the number of wintering Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) and other shorebirds. A total of 62 Piping Plover was counted this year, which represents a 64% decline compared to last year’s count.
All shorebirds were counted during surveys of the Islands, representing over 15 species and many of conservation concern. While the total shorebird count has not been tallied, overall shorebird numbers were much reduced compared to last year with a 75% lower count at one particularly important site.

The Piping Plover population in TCI diminished in 2017.

This year Piping Plover were seen at three locations: a small cay off South Caicos, a cay between Middle and East Caicos, and the East Bay Cay off North Caicos. They were missing from a few spots where they had been observed in prior years. Many quiet cays and remote beaches throughout the Islands were surveyed. Secluded and undeveloped mudflats and sandy beaches in the Turks & Caicos Islands make attractive wintering areas for many migratory shorebirds including the Piping Plover and another U.S. and Canadian threatened shorebird, the Red Knot (Calidris canutus).
There is still some very good wintering habitat in the TCI for Piping Plover, but evidence of Hurricanes Irma and Maria was observed during surveys of most sites, with erosion having reduced habitat in some areas, at least temporarily. Little Ambergris Cay is one place that was particularly hard-hit by Hurricane Irma, reduced by erosion and overwashing. Piping Plover had been observed in multiple places there during prior surveys. Although a very thorough survey was conducted in 2018, fewer shorebirds were counted compared to previous years and no Piping Plover were seen on Little Ambergris.
It is still unknown exactly how the birds respond to hurricanes, so this type of research is extremely important. The massive storms which hit the Turks & Caicos Islands in September 2017 could have caused direct Piping Plover mortality and other shorebird losses. However, it is also possible that birds left in advance of the storm and birds still migrating may have been steered off course, causing them to winter elsewhere. Numbers of Piping Plover were greatly reduced in the Bahamas after Hurricane Matthew (E.C. Dooley 2017, J. Carey 2016). In combination with Bahamas research and future research in the Turks & Caicos Islands, it may be possible to figure out if declines persist long-term or if the birds only temporarily relocate during the year of the storms.
Another tool to help researchers better understand the impacts of the storms is marking and re-sighting birds. In each prior survey year, uniquely marked Piping Plover were observed. During the 2018 surveys, 12 of the 62 birds spotted were tagged birds, marked with individual coded flags. The marked birds were banded in U.S. (5) and Canada (7) confirming that the Turks & Caicos Islands is an important wintering area for these threatened and endangered populations. At one very small cay off South Caicos some of the same birds have been seen multiple years in a row. But some marked birds seen previously were not seen this year. Researchers will be looking for these birds during the breeding season. If they are seen during breeding surveys or future winter surveys in the TCI, that would support the hypothesis that birds relocate for the winter after a storm. Alternatively, if these marked birds are never seen again, it is possible the storms cause some direct mortality.
Given the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Piping Plover and other shorebirds and their habitat in the Turks & Caicos, future research is needed. Launching an extensive survey of the Islands requires a lot of international planning and support. However, the Piping Plover is an international species of concern and working in collaboration is essential to assess threats throughout their lifecycle and to better understand the resilience and recovery of this species and the habitat to hurricanes. Thus, researchers from the U.S. and Canada will try to return next year and work again with TCI researchers to see if the Piping Plover population in the Islands has recovered and if they have returned in greater numbers.

What is a Piping Plover?
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).
The Piping Plover is a rare shorebird that breeds in the U.S. and Canada and migrates to the southern U.S., Caribbean and Mexico for the winter. Wintering birds from the U.S. and Canada spend considerable time in the Turks & Caicos Islands, probably due to the favourable climate and habitats.
Wintering Piping Plovers prefer mudflat and sandy beach habitats. They are particularly attracted to areas with tidal flats—coastal sandy or muddy areas that are bare or sparsely vegetated with algae which are flooded at high tide but exposed by low tides. During the breeding season, they nest on sandy and stony coastal beaches and feed along beaches and nearby sand and mudflats. 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 snatch it up.

Conservation status
The Piping Plover is globally threatened or endangered, depending on the breeding location, with fewer than 9,000 individuals in the world. In the U.S. Great Lakes region, it has been listed as Endangered, and it is considered Threatened in the remainder of its U.S. breeding range. In Canada, the Piping Plover is considered Endangered. 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.

An international team of researchers surveyed many of TCI’s quiet cays and remote beaches to count shorebirds, including the Piping Plover.

Surveys
In 2011, many local bird enthusiasts had reported small numbers (less than 5) of Piping Plover during the winter months, but no authoritative confirmation of the birds’ migration to the Turks & Caicos Islands had yet been made. That same year, the Bahamas was for the first time identified as a major wintering site for the species (Elliott-Smith et al. 2015, Gratto-Trevor, et al., 2016). Knowing this, in 2016 a group of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in cooperation with the DECR, conducted a preliminary survey and found 96 Piping Plovers in the Turks & Caicos Islands. In 2017, the same group, with the addition of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), Turks & Caicos National Trust, the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and SWA Environmental collaborated to conduct a similar study expanded to cover more areas and 174 Piping Plover were documented.

Threats
Many anthropogenic activities can negatively affect Piping Plover populations in wintering areas. Disturbance to roosting and foraging birds may be caused by vehicle traffic including jet-skis, airboats and all-terrain vehicles. Habitat may be lost or degraded by dredging activities, construction and installation of structures including marinas, roads and dwellings, oil spills and oil spill clean-up. Also, beach nourishment, storm water and wastewater discharge, stabilization and cleaning may degrade shorebird habitat. Predation and disturbance by introduced animals such as feral cats and dogs can have direct and indirect effects on resting and feeding shorebirds.

Bird conservation
There is definitely a need to protect habitat and shorebirds in TCI. Tagging projects have highlighted the fact that many Piping Plover return to the same winter location year after year. If we want this endangered and threatened bird to continue visiting the Turks & Caicos Islands, there is a need to address the deterioration and destruction of important bird habitat including key roost sites where shorebirds rest, and sand and mudflats where shorebirds feed.
If you want to take part in activities that will promote environmental sustainability, including bird conservation, contact the DECR at environment@gov.tc.

This year’s fieldworks were supported by BirdsCaribbean, Turks & Caicos Reef Fund and SWA Environmental, in addition to the financial and in-kind contributions by the institutions of the participating team members.

Literature sited
Carey, J. 2016. Hundreds of Atlantic Piping Plovers Are Missing After Hurricane Matthew. Audubon News, 14 December 2016. http://www.audubon.org/news/hundreds-atlantic-piping-plovers-are-missing-after-hurricane-matthew

Dooley, E.C. 2017. Bird watching: Eyes on plover population after Hurricane Matthew. Newsday, 20 May 2017. https://www.newsday.com/long-island/bird-watching-eyes-on-plover-population-after-hurricane-matthew-1.13650617

Elliott-Smith, E., M. Bidwell, A.E. Holland, and S.M. Haig. 2015. Data from the 2011 International Piping Plover Census: U.S. Geological Survey Data Series 922, 296 p. http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/ds922

Gratto-Trevor C., D. Amirault-Langlais, D. Catlin,F. Cuthbert, J. Fraser, S. Maddock, E. Roche, F. Shaffer. 2011. Connectivity in piping plovers: Do breeding populations have distinct winter distributions? Journal of Wildlife Management, 76:2 pp.348-355.



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