Green Pages

Piping Up

Rare, endangered, and threatened bird found in Turks & Caicos Islands.

By Eric F. Salamanca, DEMA, Elise Elliote-Smith, US Geologic Service, and
Caleb Spiegel and Craig Watson, US Fish and Wildlife Service
Photos By Eric F. Salamanca

The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shorebird that nests and feeds along coastal sand and beaches. Due to anthropogenic disturbances, this bird is considered endangered or threatened. It is a rare shorebird that breeds in the US and Canada and migrates to the southern US, Caribbean, and Mexico for the winter. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed this bird as “near threatened” in their Red Lists, while US and Canada had listed it as “threatened/endangered.”

Rare Piping Plovers spotted in Ft. George National Park.

Rare Piping Plovers spotted in Ft. George National Park.

It is not known whether Piping Plovers migrate in Turks & Caicos, although the species was observed in the northern Bahamas (National Geographic, 2011). The wintering habitats in the Bahamas are also present in the Turks & Caicos Islands, and for this reason researchers from the US Geologic Survey (USGS) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (UFWS), believed it important to investigate TCI’s natural habitat, in cooperation with DEMA, and survey the Islands to determine the presence of Piping Plover.
Piping Plovers are one of two US federally-listed species (along with the Red Knot), although over half of Atlantic Flyway shorebirds are declining. Concern for shorebird populations has led to the creation of the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative, which brings together partners from across the flyway (from the Arctic to South America) to identify and implement actions that can reverse declining populations. The initiative recognizes that in order to protect bird species, it is important to understand the threats they face throughout their annual cycles. All shorebirds are being counted in the Caribbean Plover Census to better understand where they winter, because such information is not well known. The identification of large concentrations of wintering shorebirds in TCI will help DEMA to consider where conservation is needed.
Based on preliminary fieldwork, the Piping Plover is observed in open sandy beaches in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Also, the declining Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Wilson’s Plover, American Oystercatcher, and Red Knot were observed in several islands and cays in the TCI.

The Piping Plover is a small stout shorebird with a large rounded head, a short thick neck, and a stubby bill. It is sand-colored, dull gray/khaki, and sparrow-sized. 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 bands become less pronounced. Its bill is orange with a black tip. 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 not easily detected on general bird surveys due to its small, cryptic nature and similarity in appearance to other small shorebird species. Its flight call is a soft, whistled “peep peep” given by standing and flying birds. It’s frequently heard alarm call is a soft “pee-werp,” with the second syllable lower pitched.

The Piping Plover lives the majority of its life on open sandy beaches, especially above tideline, and alkalai flats. It builds its nests higher on the shore near beach grass and other objects. It is very rare to see a Piping Plover anywhere outside of sand or rocky beaches/shores while not migrating. Piping Plovers are often found to migrate south during winter months. It is now confirmed that they reach the Turks & Caicos shores during winter migration. This bird eats insects and small aquatic invertebrates. It runs rapidly, stops, and then pecks or quickly snatches at prey.

Breeding birds have a single black breast band, a black bar across the forehead, bright orange legs and bill, and a black tip on the bill. During the winter, the birds lose their breeding plumage — the black bands are lost, the legs fade to pale yellow, and the bill becomes mostly black. Piping Plovers breed in 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, these birds prefer sand beaches and mudflats. Migrants are seldom seen inland, but occasionally show up at shores, river bars, or alkali flats.

Individuals forage visually in typical plover fashion, employing a run-stop-scan technique. Plovers capture prey by leaning forward and picking at surfaces; they also employ a “foot-tremble” feeding method, causing prey to move and become more conspicuous. Feeding by day and night, they eat a wide variety of aquatic marine worms, insects, mollusks, and crustaceans.

Status and conservation issues
The Piping Plover is globally threatened (likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future) and endangered (in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range). It has been listed by the United States as “endangered” in the Great Lakes region and “threatened” in the remainder of its breeding range. In eastern Canada, the Piping Plover is declared an endangered species. In the Turks & Caicos Islands, this bird is listed as rare and endangered (Wildlife and Biodiversity Protection Bill).
Historically (19th and early 20th centuries), the Piping Plover was utilized for its feathers, as were many other birds at the time, as decorations for women’s hats. These decorations, called plumes, became a symbol of high society, especially those from larger rare birds. This practice led to the initial population decline of Piping Plovers.
The second decline in the birds’ population and range has been attributed to increased development, shoreline stabilization efforts, habitat loss, and human activity near nesting sites. Declines resulted from direct and unintentional harassment by people, pets such as dogs and cats, vehicles, destruction of beach habitat for development, and changes in water level attributed to sea level rise due to climate change.
In the Turks & Caicos Islands, Piping Plovers were observed in the shores that are within the Protected Areas (PAs), although they may be present in non-protected areas. A protected area is a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated, and managed through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values (IUCN Definition 2008). The PAs are intended to provide places for the enjoyment of the present and future generations, including habitats for wildlife.

Critical activities affecting the Piping Plover
Activities that can adversely affect the habitat of Piping Plovers include the following: dredging and dredge spoil placement; construction and installation of facilities, pipelines, and 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, stabilizations and cleaning; certain types and levels of recreational activities such as all-terrain vehicular activity; and stormwater and wastewater discharge. Although this is not the only determinant factor, healthy and conducive habitats are correlated with population.

The way forward
To ensure that this endangered and threatened bird will continue to be on our shores, we need to understand its biology and ecology. It is also important to understand how the destruction of habitat leads to the loss of endangered and threatened species.
We need to protect natural coastal dune habitats by staying on boardwalks and existing trails. When walking with your pets on a beach or in other natural areas, keep your pet leashed to prevent disturbing nesting, roosting, or foraging birds. Finally, support any and all initiatives to protect the natural resources and wildlife of the “Beautiful by Nature” Turks & Caicos Islands.

If you wish to take part in various activities that will promote environmental sustainability, including bird conservation, please contact DEMA at

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Gary James at Provo Pictures ( used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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