Conserve Wildlife Blog

A Return to the Bahamas in Search of Wintering Piping Plovers

March 5th, 2022

by Todd Pover, Senior Wildlife Biologist

Flock of wintering piping plovers in the Bahamas – plovers grouping close together as the tide closes in on the foraging flat. Photo Coutesy of Keith Kemp.

Just a few hours after landing on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas in early February, I had my scope focused on several dozen piping plovers scurrying across an expansive sand flat. This was good news; the foraging flat still supported a healthy number of wintering plovers. The last time I had been at this site was almost exactly three years ago. A lot has happened since then.

On September 1, 2019, a major Category 5 storm, Hurricane Dorian, struck and lingered over the island of Abaco, and then Grand Bahama, bringing with it sustained winds of 185 MPH and gusts of 220 MPH, the strongest storm on record to hit the Bahamas. As expected from a storm of this intensity, lives were lost and devastating damage occurred to buildings and infrastructure. The natural environment took a beating too. As just one example, the pine forests, typical of these two Bahamian islands, that were in the direct path of the storm were nearly entirely destroyed – even today, 2 ½ years later, the sight of a “ghost forest” as far as the eye can see is a shocking sight.

The Bahamas is the major wintering site for Atlantic Coast piping plovers, including some of those that breed in New Jersey. Based on the timing of the storm, some plovers had already arrived in the Bahamas for the winter and others would not have been far behind. Aside from fears about the survival of those plovers that were already there during the storm, impacts to the habitats they use, both foraging flats and beaches where they roost (rest), were of major concern.

Typical piping plover foraging flat in the Bahamas.

Because of the urgent need to focus on recovery efforts, there was little opportunity immediately after the storm to assess the damage on piping plover habitats, let alone conduct bird surveys. A few brave residents eventually provided some insight a couple of months later; based on a limited number of surveys and band resights, piping plovers appeared to have largely survived on Abaco and damage to the critical habitats seemed minor. But that was only at a few sites in the southern portion of Abaco, where impacts from the storm were notably less than those experienced in the central and northern part of the island, as well as on the outer cays. Bottom line: the initial assessment was somewhat promising for piping plovers, but very incomplete.

I had hoped to return to Abaco the winter following the hurricane to check in on piping plovers, but storm recovery was slow, so that didn’t end up being an option. And then, the Covid pandemic also struck, and travelling was neither possible nor wise. Flash forward, three years later, and I was just returning to Abaco for the first time since the hurricane.

Needless to say, I was elated to see so many plovers, including several banded New Jersey birds and some who had survived the years since the hurricane, on my very first survey on the trip back to Abaco. I would go on to see over a hundred plovers at various sites across the island and its cays during my ten days of surveys, but unfortunately, not everything was as rosy as the first survey. Many of the established roost locations – sites where piping plovers reliably occurred before the hurricane – were vacant, even after several repeated surveys.

It is hard to make any direct correlation to the hurricane, too much time has elapsed since I (or anyone in most cases) last surveyed these sites. Some of the plovers, even if they had survived the storm would have experienced normal mortality by now. To the naked eye, the sites now empty of plovers looked very much the same as before the hurricane. On careful inspection though, you could still see lingering signs that they likely were greatly impacted by the storm, the point being they might look suitable now, but not necessarily for the weeks or months immediately following the hurricane.

CWF Biologist Todd Pover scanning the shoreline for piping plovers in the Bahamas.

Piping plovers have strong site fidelity (attachment) to their breeding, migratory AND wintering sites, but if the habitat was severely compromised by the hurricane, some may have moved to new sites. The question is where and how far away. Having spent years before the storm figuring out exactly where the birds were located – myself and other CWF staff regularly visited Abaco between 2011-19 to conduct surveys and educational work – it now appears we are “back to zero” in some cases. Because we know some banded plovers survived and are still breeding, they are clearly still wintering somewhere, likely still on Abaco, but in a new suitable location they found in the aftermath of the storm. As much as we know about the location of plovers on Abaco, there is much we still don’t know, as many sites are especially remote and remain unstudied.

As I already mentioned, despite some setbacks, I did still tally a significant number of wintering piping plovers on this trip. Some older sites remain intact and thriving on Abaco. I even discovered a few new sites. Still, it will take a renewed effort – more time and surveys – to fully figure out what’s going on with the “missing” birds and where their new sites are located.

You may wonder, why is the wintering work for piping plovers still important? This particular survey effort was to aid a long-term Canadian research project, now in its last year of field work, looking at piping plover survival rates and other demographic information. Results from this study may provide valuable insights about plover mortality in a geographic context. We often focus on piping plover breeding success and protection, but in most cases, plovers spend more time at their migratory and wintering sites than on the breeding grounds; what happens to them on the wintering grounds can greatly impact their overall survival and recovery as an at-risk species. Knowing what risks they face off the breeding grounds, including from hurricanes, is an important part of “full life-cycle” conservation.

For now, we anxiously await the return of piping plovers to the breeding grounds, including to New Jersey’s beaches, over the next month or so. I am back in the U.S. and the plovers will be following me soon, headed north along the flyway. Hopefully, I will have a chance to return to Abaco next winter, following them south for the winter, so we can continue our quest to better understand the wintering habits of piping plovers.

NOTE: This blog is dedicated to Keith Kemp, a local Abaconian, who as a volunteer “citizen-scientist” documented wintering piping plover occurrences on Abaco and provided many important band resights for researchers between 2015-20. Keith sadly passed away just before I was able to return to Abaco this winter. It is not an exaggeration to say that without his tireless efforts – he was especially passionate about piping plovers – our understanding of where and how piping plovers use different sites on Abaco would not be what it is today.

To find out more about some of our previous work in the Bahamas, click on the video below produced several years ago.

Tags: , , , ,

Comments are closed.