Conserve Wildlife Blog

In Search of Stumpy – A Wintering Piping Plover Adventure

December 21st, 2022

By Todd Pover, Senior Wildlife Biologist

Earlier this summer, it was announced that the annual range-wide American oystercatcher meeting would be held in December on the Gulf Coast of Florida near Naples. Thrilled to finally be attending in-person after several pandemic years of virtual meetings, my mind immediately pivoted to what other nearby nature sites I could also visit. Or more specifically and not too surprising for those that know me…where could I go to view wintering piping plovers.

In late September, Hurricane Ian made a direct landing in this region of Florida. The meeting had to be scuttled, relocated to the Georgia coast. And just like that, my “add-on” plans – I had arranged a short trip to Outback Key about two hours north of the meeting – fell off the itinerary.

Or maybe not. Georgia borders Florida, right? Six hours of driving for a chance to see 50-60 piping plovers in one spot is reasonable, right? Did I mention at least one New Jersey breeder winters at the site?

So as soon as the oystercatcher meeting wrapped at mid-day, I found myself in a car, along with fellow CWF Biologist Emmy Casper, hurtling toward St. Petersburg, Florida. We arrived at nightfall, woke in what felt like a flash, so we could wait in a line of cars, still in the dark, for Fort DeSoto County Park to open at 7 am. We had a very narrow window for our visit with the morning low tide being optimal shorebird viewing at Outback Key and because we had mid-day flights home.

As anxious as we were to see some plovers as soon as the gates opened, we had some important business to attend to first. The trip was also our chance to meet Lorraine Margeson in-person. Lorraine and I had become virtual friends on social media about a year earlier when she spotted Stumpy, who is one of New Jersey’s breeding piping plovers and is marked with bands, on Outback Key. Stumpy returned to Outback again this winter. Lorraine would be our tour guide in our search for Stumpy.

CWF Biologists Emmy Casper and Todd Pover scanning for plovers on Outback Key, Fort DeSoto Park, FL.
Courtesy of Lorraine Margeson.

Emmy and I have personal connections to Stumpy. In 2021, she hatched at and fledged from the Barnegat Light habitat restoration site, a project I helped create and lead. This year she returned to New Jersey to nest at the nearby Holgate Unit of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, where Emmy oversaw the monitoring program for CWF on behalf of the Refuge. Emmy found Stumpy’s nest, her first as a breeding adult, and helped monitor the four chicks Stumpy successfully raised to fledgling (flying) stage. Needless to say, Emmy and I felt like proud “parents” visiting her on winter break.

Now back to Lorraine. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call her the “mayor” of shorebirds at Outback Key. She is there near daily, all the more impressive considering that she volunteers her time. Depending on the time of year, she helps keep watch on both wintering and breeding populations of plovers (piping, snowy, and Wilson’s) and other shorebirds. She advocates for their protection. She posts frequent status updates on social media. She reports bands, which provides valuable information to researchers. In short, she is a force for shorebirds at the site.

With our meet-up behind us in the parking lot, we were off to the low tide flats of Outback Key. Within minutes we had plovers in our sights, a mix of piping and snowy, many of them banded, but alas, no Stumpy. To be honest, Stumpy had not been seen for some time. Even though piping plovers have strong attachment to specific wintering “sites”, they can move around to different sites within a small region, depending on tides, food availability, human disturbance, predator presence, and other factors. Outback Key is an impressive site by any birding standard, seeing so many piping plovers, from both the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes populations, was worth the trip whether or not we saw Stumpy. But we really had our hearts set on seeing her.

As (bad) luck would have it, a merlin was disrupting all the shorebirds at the site, as soon as a flock of plovers settled down to forage, they’d be on the move again. Spotting tiny bands on a skittish piping plover isn’t the easiest task. Lorraine preached patience; Emmy and I mostly felt our Stumpy clock ticking down as our departing flight times inched closer. And just like that, nearly at the exact same time, Emmy and I both spied a familiar black and blue band combination through our binoculars and in minutes we knew it was Stumpy.

“Stumpy”, one of New Jersey’s breeding piping plovers in winter plumage at Outback Key.
Courtesy of Lorraine Margeson.

Mission accomplished. Hearts full. I am always up for a crazy wildlife adventure, this had certainly been one for the books, but I had another objective in mind, as well. I saw the trip as a platform to speak to an important conservation issue.

Tremendous resources and time have been dedicated to piping plover conservation on the breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada. Maximizing productivity – the number of fledglings produced – is certainly a proven formula for recovering and maintaining this highly at-risk species. But they also need safe and suitable sites for migration and wintering, their long-term survival and health depends on it. Stumpy arrived on Outback Key in early August this year. She will not return to New Jersey to breed again until next March or April. That means she spends 7-8 months of the year at Outback Key. Those of us on the breeding grounds like to claim “ownership” of our birds, but it isn’t a stretch to say Stumpy is a resident of Florida that summers in New Jersey…the reverse of being a “snowbird”. No matter how you look at it, having strong protection and protectors on the wintering grounds is critical for piping plover recovery. Full life cycle conservation is the only path to success.

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5 Responses to “In Search of Stumpy – A Wintering Piping Plover Adventure”

  1. Helen Trammell says:

    What sheer delight reading your account of Stumpy’s safe sighting!! Here in a NJ hospital bed, birthday eve recalling my mothers Piping Plover watching on the Outer Banks in the early 90’s. Thank you all for this love and dedication to out shore birds.

  2. Freda Karpf says:

    Thanks. Loved this story. You help us feel connected by sharing the news. So important.

  3. Dale Lautenschleger says:

    After experiencing my first Plover encounter last January at Ft DeSoto and seeing the several banded Plovers, I absolutely loved reading this story and am looking forward to a return trip this winter. Happy Holiday season and thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Barb McKee says:

    Oh! What a Happy Holiday gift your story is!!! There is nothing quite as rewarding as reconnecting with precious wildlife that you have had a hand in protecting and nurturing!! This story just made my day!! Thanks for sharing and best wishes to all for a brand new and happy 2023 and to Stumpy, may she return safely to NJ to produce many more chicks!

  5. Phil Ryser says:

    Fantastic news, it is always gratifying to hear a success story when it comes to our recovering wildlife here in New Jersey as well as the entire Atlantic Coast. Thanks to all that support the Conserve Wildlife Foundation and all of our dedicated team for the efforts each and every day! Congrats to all!!