Thursday, May 19, 2011

Piping Plover - Charadrius melodus

This is a brief tail (pun intended) of a bird that is in need of a fighting chance of species survival. The Piping Plover is endangered, i.e., threatened to disappear from regions in which it lives and breeds.

 Populations of the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) have declined alarmingly in North America in recent decades, enough to be placed in the "endangered" or "at risk" category in most of its historical breeding regions -- the Great Lakes region (where no successful nest has been recorded for over 20 years), sections of the Atlantic coast from the Maritimes to Virginia, and the Northern Great Plains (which has the largest population, consisting of about 1,400 breeding pairs). In Canada it is nationally endangered and hence protected by the federal Species at Risk Act since 1985 and protected also under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act. It is also protected by provincial endangered species legislation in all provinces in which it breeds, including Alberta.

In Alberta, and elsewhere too, the Piping Plover is a bad news story, but the story has begun to improve. Between 1986 and 2001 census results (yes, birds too, at least some, are required to say tweet!) indicated a 50% population decline, the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) reports. According to the ACA, "research ... annually over the past 20 years ... has shown very clearly that predation of eggs is one of the biggest problems for the Great Plains/prairie population, limiting its recovery. Although few people have actually witnessed predation of plover eggs, through their research, field biologists know that the main egg predators are crows, gulls and mammals such as raccoons, fox, coyote and skunks." Isn't that a stretch? -- one might think. These predators have always been around. True, but recreational use of beaches and other human encroachments and the detritus humans leave behind have increased populations of gulls, crows, foxes and skunks in some areas where these plovers breed. There are other factors that inhibit the plover's breeding success -- nicely described at

Though by no means out of the woods (or salt flats) yet, the story is heading in a happier direction in recent years. Again, according to the ACA: "Since 2001, the Alberta piping plover population has increased by over 95 percent, from 150 adults to the 295 adults counted in 2008!" This is due to several recovery measures, most importantly perhaps, protecting as many nests as possible with predator exclosures. These exclosures are round mesh cages that allow the piping plovers to enter the nest but exclude their predators that like plover eggs. The incubating plover simply runs between the holes in the mesh of the exclosure and is then protected from most predators.

Enough on the plight of the plovers. Now to these lovely little creatures themselves.

It is a fairly stocky little (about the size of a large sparrow) member of the plover family (Charadriidae) that belongs to the Shorebird order (Charadriiformes). Its most distinguishing visible field marks are a black head stripe that goes from one eye to the other, a single black band across its neck, a long white eyebrow, a bill with bright orange base and black tip, orange legs. In the photo below, a male-female pair, you may spot the differences between male (right) and female (left): look at the thickness of the necklace and the colour of the beak.

Female (left) and Male (right) pair: spot the differences!

Frontal view of the male's head and neck band
Its habitat requires wide sandy or gravely shores of lakes or large river sandbars. In Alberta and elsewhere on the prairies it is typically found on the "salt-flat" shores of shallow, saline lakes. It needs a wide swath of vegetation-free or sparsely vegetated beach where it scrapes out its nest in the sand or gravel. Nests are often lined with small pebbles or shell remnants to keep the eggs off the wet sand and to provide camouflage. Below is a typical salt lake in Alberta (name and location undisclosed) that the Piping Plover looks for, and an image that shows how well this little creature blends into the salt-covered gravel.

Saline lake in eastern Alberta

Why "Piping" Plover? I used to think it had to do with the "piping" that encircles its neck, the neck band. Not so, actually. The Latin species name melodus for once gives the clue. The name refers to its distinctive whistles that are often heard before the bird is seen.

If you happen to see a Piping Plover, count yourself lucky to meet this rare bird. Give it lots of room to feed and tend its nest or young chicks -- who, by the way, emerge fully feathered from the eggs in early June,  begin to run a few hours after hatching, and feed themselves on small insects found on the surface of the sand found at shorelines. The adults provide protective cover for the chicks until they can fly, about 20 to 25 days after hatching.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting Willi. this is a very pretty bird, and I have never seen one before in my life. So I count myself lucky to have viewed some wonderful shots of it. Why saline flats? Or is the salt neither here nor there?

    thanks Willi