Green Pages

Coming Home to Winter

Shore birds rebound after Hurricane Irma.

By Eric F. Salamanca, Elise Elliot-Smith, Caleb Spiegel, Jen Rock, Craig Watson, Bryan N. Manco and Lormeka Williams ~ Photos By Eric F. Salamanca

The Piping Plover is a rare shorebird that breeds in the United States and Canada and migrates to the southern US, 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 US and Canada spend considerable time in the Turks & Caicos Islands, 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. These habitats were affected by Category Five Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The Piping Plover spends much time in the Turks & Caicos in the winter.

The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small migratory shorebird that nests on sandy and stony coastal beaches and feeds 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.

While the wintering habitat in the Turks & Caicos Islands remains in good condition for Piping Plover, the population appeared to have declined in 2018 following the two major hurricanes that passed through the territory in September 2017. The massive storms could have caused direct mortality or may have steered birds off course, causing them to winter elsewhere. In early 2020, the total Piping Plover count was slightly over 140, the second highest since the survey count of 193 in early 2017. It was noted that there was a low count in 2018 (62 birds) following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017. The lower count in 2018 is not totally attributed to Hurricane Irma because it may be due to shifts in use of habitats after hurricanes. It has been noted that the Piping Plover has the propensity to use the same areas each winter, which include associated sand flats, smaller cays or multiple beaches. 

Surveys of wintering areas are vital for tracking population trends and informing full lifecycle conservation and management of declining and listed shorebirds. Further, re-sighting of individually marked shorebirds can identify migratory connectivity and elucidate population dynamics, contributing to informed management. Since 2016, comprehensive shorebird surveys were conducted annually in TCI during January and February by an international team. Over 30 banded Piping Plovers were resighted, most banded at breeding sites from Newfoundland to New Jersey. Re-sights suggest that TCI’s wintering Piping Plovers are predominately from the Atlantic-nesting population, and TCI supports a minimum 5% of that population. 

Piping Plover frequent sand flats, smaller cays and beaches.

Twenty-three shorebird species were documented, with substantial numbers of federally listed (US & Canada) Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) and Rufa subspecies of Red Knot (Calidris canutus) and non-listed, but declining species such as Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus). The largest concentrations were found in areas with minimal development and relatively undisturbed foraging and roosting habitat. Bands of four species of individually-marked shorebirds were re-sighted—Piping Plover, Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) and Sanderling (Calidris alba), connecting wintering areas to breeding and migratory stopover sites in North America. 

One area discovered to have multiple nearby sites used by a single flock is the large sandy flat area surrounding a cay on the northern end of South Caicos and McCartney Flats on the south side of East Caicos.  Another area where two neighbouring sites are used by the same Piping Plovers is Conch Cay between Middle and North Caicos and East Bay Island National Park just off the northeast coast of North Caicos. The Piping Plover were also noted to be using three cays northeast of Providenciales: Dellis, Stubbs and Fort George. Some of the most important sites seemed relatively unchanged, but storm erosion can be insidious and is not readily apparent. One of the most important shorebird sites in the TCI are a handful of very remote, tidally exposed sand flats and a tiny island south of Middle Caicos. At this site there is only a single small rocky area exposed during high tides and birds tend to roost in this spot until neighboring sand flats are exposed for feeding.  

In the five years of surveys, the team has observed approximately 80 bird species and approximately 13,000 individual shorebirds, providing DECR and local partners much needed information to assist in managing the natural resources of the Islands. 

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 US Great Lakes region, it has been listed as “endangered” and it is considered “threatened” in the remainder of its US 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.

Threats

This team of researchers has observed 80 bird species and 13,000 shorebirds over the last five years in TCI.

Many anthropogenic activities can negatively affect Piping Plover populations in wintering areas. Some of the main threats include human disturbance, habitat loss and predation.

Human disturbance to roosting and feeding birds can be caused by an excessive number of human activities and certain types of recreational activities, such as all-terrain vehicles. Habitat may be lost or degraded by dredging activities, construction and installation of structures including marinas, roads and swelling, oil spills and oil spill clean-up. Also, beach nourishment and 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.

It was observed 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 the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

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 TCI, 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.

For more information, contact Eric F. Salamanca at  efsalamanca@gov.tc.



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On the Cover

Agile LeVin—photographer, explorer and chronicler of everything TCI on his website www.visittci.com—took this drone photo of the multi-textured wetlands of West Caicos. He was part of the expedition that investigated the site of the historic pirate attack in the area. For more information and photos, go to page 48.

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