Conserve Wildlife Blog


April 27th, 2013

A new window into our plover world

By Todd Pover, Beach Nesting Bird Project Manager

Banded Piping Plover at Stone Harbor Point, NJ. Courtesy of Tom Reed

Banded Piping Plover at Stone Harbor Point, NJ.
Courtesy of Tom Reed

On the beach nesting bird project we are normally busy this time of the year locating nests, putting up fence to protect nesting areas, and placing special predator cages around piping plover nests. This year we have added a new wrinkle – we are also conducting intensive piping plover band re-sighting surveys.

Those surveys are possible as a result of a research project being conducted in New Jersey (and Massachusetts) by the State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry on piping plover flight behaviors and patterns. About 30 plovers were colored banded here last year with more planned this season as part of the study. This has provided an exciting opportunity for us to answer some questions of our own that are not part of the research project itself, so the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program have teamed up to do near daily band re-sightings this spring and last fall.

It was previously known that piping plovers have strong site fidelity to their breeding grounds, and in fact, most of banded birds that have returned so far have come back to the same study site (which are Avalon Dunes and Stone Harbor Point), although a few have also flip-flopped sites. And within the sites, individual plovers have not necessarily matched up with their mate from last year, again it was known that piping plovers don’t nest for life as a pair, but how they are pairing is proving interesting. It appears to have more to do with their exact arrival date and which male or female is available (and if an “available” mate is even present).

While these observations may be endlessly fascinating to those of us in our plover-centric universe, banding does carry some risks to birds and we don’t have unlimited time or resources, so any study of this sort must also have a strong purpose that helps guide or inform species conservation and management. In this case, the daily resight surveys have shown that the first wave of our breeding birds returned to sites right around March 15. This is important because in recent years we have moved up the date when certain activities (i.e. mechanical beach raking, vehicle use, dogs on the beach) that could disturb or impact nesting or the habitat being utilized are put into effect. Through the band resightings we can ascertain these aren’t just migrants passing through, but rather breeders attached to those specific sites for which those activities could have impacts on nest site selection and use. Band resighting has helped illustrate the importance of maintaining habitat conditions at certain sites for piping plovers. Our science and detailed collection of data confirms the validity of the March 15 date being used for regulatory protection of piping plovers in New Jersey.

On the flip side, band resighting completed after the breeding season last year revealed that some of the plovers remained at their “nesting” site much longer than expected, until October in some cases. Our sites may play a bigger role than realized in staging or migration. In one case, a banded individual that had one of the latest departure dates was also one of the first arrivals this spring, meaning it spent over 6 months here in New Jersey. Most of our management protection for piping plovers is focused on the breeding season (March 15-August 15), so this may mean we have to rethink how we are protecting plovers and other shorebirds beyond that date. Migration is a physically taxing and dangerous life-stage for any shorebird, so it is critical they are as fit as possible in this phase, which, in part, may mean minimizing any persistence or significant disturbance.

This is just a small part of what we are trying to learn from the banded piping plovers. Our window of opportunity is likely fairly narrow – piping plovers are a relatively short-lived bird and the sample size of banded ones here in New Jersey is small. With this in mind, we hope to glean as much information as possible through this initiative.

Note: The researchers studying piping plovers as part of the SUNY-ESF project will be providing guest blogs to us from time to time so that we can find out what they are doing and learning out in the field. Stay tuned!

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