By Wayne Bierbaum
In 1987, I witnessed a strong confrontation between a surf fisherman and a wildlife officer. The spring fish run was occurring and parts of the beach, above the high-tide line, were marked off-limits due to nesting shore birds. The fisherman insisted that he had a right to drive through the nesting area. He was asked to wait for the tide to fall or to walk along the water’s edge to his fishing spot. There were several hand-printed signs around the area protesting the beach closures. The protesting didn’t work and the closures remained. That fisherman didn’t win and had to wait for the tide to fall. The way he was acting—like a pouting child—made me think there wouldn’t be any careful driving in his future.
One of the birds protected by this beach restriction was a tiny sparrow-sized shorebird called a piping plover. In 1985, there were less than 500 nesting pairs of piping plovers along the entire Atlantic Coast. Plovers nest in shallow sandy or pebbly depressions above the high tide line. Both the birds and their nests are well camouflaged. Off-road vehicles are cited as the major cause of nest destruction but even just walking into a nesting area can cause a bird to abandon a nest. Wild animals, feral cats, and unleashed dogs also disturb and prey on the birds. The largest cause of the decline of such shorebirds though is development.
There are actually three populations of piping plovers, all in North America. The Atlantic shore population nests on the coasts from Maine to Florida and spends winter in Florida. About one-third of these birds will winter on three small keys in the Bahamas.
The other two piping plover populations in the northern Midwest and along the Great Lakes are a subspecies (Charadrius melodus circumcinctus) of the Atlantic population. They nest along rivers and lakes from the Platte River to Lake Erie and spend their winters on the Gulf of Mexico.
The birds lay two to four eggs early in the summer. Interestingly, although the eggs are laid two days apart, they will hatch at the same time. The young can run and feed themselves from the first day. Within a month, they are ready to fly and fend for themselves. The birds eat worms, crustaceans, and insects they find along the shoreline.
They have a unique way of finding their food. In water less than an inch deep, they will stand on one foot and use the other foot to splash in the water. When small crustaceans and worms try to escape the splashing, the bird grabs them.
The Atlantic birds start migrating south by early September and may take several weeks to reach the winter grounds. The Midwest plovers seem to reach the Gulf of Mexico in one flight. They are not usually found anywhere in between.
The recovery of the species has been difficult. The Great Lakes group has increased from 13 pairs in 1886 to 70. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that the Atlantic Coast population of piping plovers increased from 476 breeding pairs when it was listed in 1985 to 1,818 pairs in 2019 (and tentatively 2,000 in 2021). On Maryland’s Assateague Island there were only ten pairs counted in 1985 and now there are as many as 70 nesting pairs (counted in 2021). The total piping plover population of all groups combined is around 4,000 nesting pairs. In comparison, there were over 4 million Baltimore oriole pairs estimated in 2020.
I recently found several piping plovers in Massachusetts and Maine but I commonly see them in September at low tide along Assateague’s shore. Those are likely birds migrating south. They are very cute little things and will calmly approach as I sit about 30 feet above the water’s edge. I do not approach any area where they are nesting. Their existence is too tenuous to risk the loss of even one nest.