Determining flight movements and patterns of piping plovers
By Sarah Scheffer, CWFNJ Seasonal Field Technician
This year’s chapter of the Beach Nesting Bird Project brought with it many unique opportunities, particularly with the placement of color bands on nearly 30 of our piping plovers at two locations along the New Jersey coastline. Nesting adults and four chicks from Stone Harbor Point and Avalon were given bands, which we have been using to conduct resight surveys to understand how adults and juveniles move about before migrating. In the long term, these bands can be used to determine if birds return to the same breeding grounds or natal sites, and where they overwinter. The banding was carried out by two researchers from the State University of New York, Emily Heiser and Christy Weaver, as part of a project to determine flight movements and patterns of piping plovers in order to be able to minimize risks to these threatened shorebirds when assessing the placement of wind turbines. Luckily, some of the CWFNJ team, including myself, was able to provide assistance and help with the banding!
Being able to band the piping plovers was a truly special experience. Nesting adults were captured by manipulating the predator exclosures (wire cages) placed over their nests to create only one entrance and one exit into a netted tunnel. Once captured the plovers were then carefully measured and weighed to determine crucial information such as body mass, wing length, and beak size. Using a small specialized tool, brightly colored plastic bands were placed on the legs of each bird to give them their own unique combination. Banding schemes can vary depending on who performs the banding and can include small flags and metal or plastic bands placed on the legs. At our two New Jersey sites, birds were given four bands, two on the upper portion of each leg. Piping plovers at Stone Harbor Point sport a green band on the top of each leg, while those at Avalon wear blue bands.
These bands have made it much easier to identify individual birds and to observe their habits. Along with the band combinations, we decided to give the plovers nicknames as well! Although the nicknames are definitely something that adds a little bit of fun to identification, they are actually quite practical as well. The nicknames helped to streamline communication about what was happening at each nesting site. For example, it is much easier to say that Bruce (Springsteen) was observed incubating his nest, than to say the bird with green gray, green yellow (band combinations are read from top to bottom, from left to right) was seen incubating.
During the summer piping plover breeding season, our duties included checking the breeding sites and the individual nests or broods every day. As the season progressed, resight surveys were also performed. A section of beach was regularly traversed and the number, location, and activities of the banded piping plovers were noted. These surveys give us crucial information about the site and the movements of the plovers, as well as when they depart to migrate. After her nest was lost in a flood tide, a banded female nicknamed Ivana was observed to have begun her migration and was spotted soon after in Virginia! As most staff check on the same sites every day, we became well acquainted with each bird and their particular idiosyncrasies. The increased ease of identification of these birds has helped turn up some surprising information. The banding project has resulted in a wealth of knowledge and the possibility to further understand the New Jersey population.