Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus
Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.
Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus
The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small sand-colored, sparrow-sized shorebird that nests and feeds along coastal sand and gravel beaches in North America. The adult has yellow-orange legs, a black band across the forehead from eye to eye, and a black ring around the neck. This chest band is usually thicker in males during the breeding season, and it’s the only reliable way to tell the sexes apart. The bird is difficult to see when it is standing still, as it blends well with open, sandy beach habitats. It typically runs in short spurts and stops.
Total population is currently estimated at about 6,510 individuals. A preliminary estimate showed 3,350 birds in 2003 on the Atlantic Coast alone, 52% of the total. The population has been increasing since 1999.
Their breeding habitat includes beaches or sand flats on the Atlantic coast, the shores of the Great Lakes, and in the mid-west of Canada and the United States. They nest on sandy or gravel beaches or shoals. These shorebirds forage for food on beaches, usually by sight, moving across the beaches in short bursts. Generally, piping plovers will forage for food around the high tide wrack zone and along the water’s edge. They eat mainly insects, marine worms, and crustaceans.
The piping plover is a stout bird with a large rounded head, a short thick neck, and a stubby bill. It is a sand-colored, dull gray/khaki, sparrow-sized shorebird. The adult has yellow-orange legs, a black band across the forehead from eye to eye, and a black ring around the neck during the breeding season. During nonbreeding season, the black bands become less pronounced. Its bill is orange with a black tip. It ranges from 15–19 cm (5.9–7.5 in) in length, with a wingspan of 35–41 cm (14–16 in) and a mass of 42–64 g (1.5–2.3 oz).
Flight call is a soft, whistled peep peep given by standing and flying birds. Its frequently heard alarm call is a soft pee-werp, which the second syllable lower pitched.
Piping plovers migrate from their northern range in the summer to the south in the winter months, migrating to the Gulf of Mexico, the southern Atlantic coast of the United States and the Caribbean. They begin migrating north beginning in mid-March. Their breeding grounds extend from southern Newfoundland south to the northern parts of South Carolina. They begin mating and nesting on the beach in mid-April.
Males will begin claiming territories and pairing up in late March. When pairs are formed, the male begins digging out several scrapes (nests) along the high shore near the beach-grass line. The males also perform elaborate courtship ceremonies, including stone tossing and courtship flights featuring repeated dives. Scrapes, small depressions in the sand dug by kicking the sand, are often in the same area that least terns choose to colonize. Females will sit and evaluate the scrapes, then choose a good scrape and decorate the nest with shells and debris to camouflage it. Once a scrape is seen as sufficient, the female will allow the male to copulate with her. The male begins a mating ritual of standing upright and “marching” towards the female, puffing himself up and quickly stomping his legs. If the female had seen the scrape as adequate, she will allow the male to stand on her back and copulation occurs within a few minutes.
Most first-time nest attempts in each breeding season are 4-egg nests which appear as early as mid-to-late April. Females lay one egg every other day. Second, third and sometimes fourth nesting attempts may have only three or two eggs. Incubation of the nest is shared by both the male and the female. Incubation is generally 27 days and eggs usually all hatch on the same day.
After chicks hatch, they are able to feed within hours. The adults’ role is then to protect them from the elements by brooding them. They also alert them to any danger. Like many other species of plovers, adult piping plovers will often feign a “broken wing display”, drawing attention to themselves and away from the chicks when a predator may be threatening the chicks’ safety. The broken wing display is also used during the nesting period to distract predators from the nest. A major defense mechanism of the chicks is their ability to blend in with the sand. It takes about 30 days before chicks achieve flight capability. They must be able to fly at least 50 yd (46 m) before they can be considered fledglings.
To protect the nests from predators during incubation, many conservationists use exclosures, such as round turkey-wire cages with screened tops. These allow the adults to move in and out but stop predators from getting to the eggs. After the chicks hatch, many areas will put up snow fencing to restrict driving and pets for the safety of the chicks. Threats to nests include crows, cats, raccoons, and foxes, among others. Exclosures are not always used, as they occasionally draw more attention to the nest than would occur without the exclosure. Natural hazards to eggs or chicks include storms, high winds, and abnormal high tides; human disturbances can cause the abandonment of nests and chicks as well. It is best to stay away from any bird that appears distressed to prevent any unintended consequences.
Migration south begins in August for some adults and fledglings, and by mid-September most piping plovers have headed south for winter.
Inconspicuous birds of dry sandy beaches, plovers breed in open sand, gravel, or shell-strewn beaches and alkali flats. Each nest site is typically near small clumps of grass, drift, or other windbreak. In winter, these birds prefer sand beaches and mudflats. Migrants are seldom seen inland, but occasionally show up at lake shores, river bars, or alkali flats. Individuals forage visually in typical plover fashion, employing a run-stop-scan technique. Plovers capture prey by leaning forward and picking at surfaces; they also employ a “foot-tremble” feeding method, causing prey to move and become more conspicuous. Feeding by day and night, they eat a wide variety of aquatic marine worms, insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. Seldom found in large numbers except at a few favored wintering or staging sites where numbers sometimes reach 100 or more, plovers are more typically seen in pairs or in groups of 3 or 4. When approached, they more often run than fly.
The piping plover is globally threatened and endangered, it is uncommon and local within its range, and has been listed by the United States as Endangered in the Great Lakes region and Threatened in the remainder of its breeding range. While it is federally threatened, the piping plover has been listed as state endangered in Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
On to my photos:
These photos were shot in July of 2015 at Muskegon State Park, where a pair of the plovers had nested. The photos are of a juvenile piping plover, I was hoping that an adult would show up also, but since they are an endangered species here in Michigan, I didn’t want to be in the same area as the chick for very long. I’m sure that I’ll eventually photograph an adult, but I’ll post this one now anyway, then add the adult when I find one.
Ha, it turns out that the day after I posted this one, I found the adults.
This is number 196 in my photo life list, only 154 to go!
That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!