Here We Go Again – piping plover

Please consider the images to be copyrighted and ask permission before using them for any purpose. Thank you. DEClapp

I know it was less than a month ago that I included a Piping Plover (PIPL) in with a collection of local shorebirds. But I had the chance to get some (pretty average) photos of baby plover chicks yesterday and just had to do another post on them. They are tiny and cute – and we walked about six hours in soft sand and a fog to get them!!

The Piping Plover is a small, short-billed, little plover of the sandy beach; a group often considered by casual observers to be sandpipers. They nest in much of the southern Canadian grain provinces and down through the Dakotas into Nebraska. But we see them here along the northern Atlantic coast as the beach-nesting little gray ghost that can stop off-road traffic in its tracks (often deep sandy tracks which is where the baby plovers like to hang out). The Piping Plover is light gray on the back and most of the head and they blend in easily with the quartz rich sand of our shoreline. Due to its modest numbers to start with and its use of a highly sought after human resource (the beach) they have been negatively impacted by an ever increasing human population and its recreational activities all along these Atlantic coast beaches – and by agriculture in the west.

There are several plovers in the USA; Killdeer, Black-bellied, Semipalmated, Wilson’s, the three Golden-Plovers, Mountain, Snowy, and the Piping. They do not all live along the ocean but they generally use a wet edge of lakes, ponds, or streams. The Killdeer is the only one that stays away from wet areas (nearly) exclusively. A regular beach-goer might learn the Black-bellied Plover but most plovers are quiet and cryptic and easily overlooked.

The pictures that follow show how they nest, a few adult birds , and the young downy chicks that leave the nest within an hour or two after hatching. The nest itself isn’t much of anything. They never went to architectural school. They will scrape out a depression large enough for the females belly and then lay eggs on the sandy bottom of the scrape. That’s it. There may be bits of shell or small pebbles added to the nest perimeter as the incubation period passes – but it really isn’t much of a nest. Much like the adult birds themselves, the nest blends in. The eggs look like sandy pebbles and they are hard to notice even when you know where they are. All in all a bird that tries not to be noticed.

Fitting in – that is how they survive. They are small and fairly quiet. They have to blend in in order to last through the breeding season. They arrive back in the northeast in March and April and nest from May into June. If all goes well the chicks emerge in mid to late June and fly by mid -July. The sexes are similar; both being gray with an orange bill and a neck band. The female of a pair is usually discernible by being a bit less obviously marked around the neck and maybe a bit drabber overall. But sometimes it is a guess as to which its the male or female.
From some angles it isn’t easy too tell drabber from non-drabber. The neck band is usually bolder in males and more complete. The pair stays together through the nesting season and both follow the precocious chicks around the beach after they hatch. They will make a flopping and noisy display to lure predators and visitors from the area where the chicks are located. They defend the territory and advise the chicks through chirps and whistles.
Because beaches are heavily used by people there is often a good deal of waste food for gulls, foxes, coyotes, and crows to glean. The presence of these scavengers increases the pressure on the Piping Plover. So, the beach managers in New England (management is less attentive on many more southern beaches) will use what we first called an “enclosure” to protect the nest. But as the whole idea is for the plovers to be able to come and go it really doesn’t enclose much of anything. It really is an “exclosure” that repels crows, foxes, skunks, and other beach predators. This gives the birds the advantage of, at a minimum, hatching a full clutch.
There are two kinds of bird babies: altricial and precocial. The altricial babies are hatched blind, featherless, and helpless. The familiar yard birds need parental care in the nest for a couple weeks. The precocious youngsters can walk or swim or both right after hatching. The obvious precocious young include ducks, grouse, shorebirds, and others like ostrich and tinamous. The parents may brood them in chilly or rainy weather and oversee the activities that the little ones undertake, but precocious young can feed themselves, and or swim, just after hatching. This little guy may be two days old but is still nothing but a bit of fluff on the beach.
At this young age they are feeding themselves. Most plovers eat what they see. They follow motion and chase it down. The youngsters are born with this skill and are on the chase right away. The adults do not show them food nor bring them food. The parental role at this point is to keep predators and trouble away from the hatchlings. The male will assume most of this role after the first four or five days. Like many of the plovers the adults will chirp and walk obviously to attract the attention of a predator (or human pedestrian). If need be they will fake a broken wing and flop along the sand. A fox will be enticed and then disappointed when the “injured” bird flies away.

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