Potentially Misidentified Species:
The piping plover can be mistaken for the semipalmated plover (Charadrius
semipalmatus), Wilson's plover (Charadrius wilsonia) and the snowy
plover (Charadrius alexandrinus), all of which are somewhat darker in
coloration. Unlike the piping plover, Wilson's plovers lack the transverse
black line across its forehead. The semipalmated plover is distinguished
by its darker rump; and the snowy plover is distinguished by it smaller
stature, black breast patches, and dark legs (Farrand 1988; Amos and Amos
II. HABITAT AND
Breeds from Newfoundland to North Carolina along the east coast. Inland,
it breeds from central Canada through the Great Lakes region. This species
overwinters in the southern United States from North Carolina south to Florida
and along the Gulf of Mexico coast.
C. melodus is thought to be fairly common
throughout the western shores of the Indian River Lagoon, especially around Port
Canaveral and Merritt Island. It is a common migrant and winter visitor to
the Lagoon area and is found almost exclusively on ocean beaches, sandpits, and
mudflats. It is unknown inland of the lagoon system. C. melodus
arrives for the winter as early as late July and early August. It becomes
fairly common by September. In most years, C. melodus departs the
area between March and mid-April. (Cruickshank 1980).
III. LIFE HISTORY AND POPULATION BIOLOGY
Age, Size, Lifespan:
Charadrius melodus is a relatively small plover,
adult weight being 43 - 63 g (Wilcox 1959; Haig 1992). It attains a height
of 7 - 8 inches.
Total number of breeding pairs in U. S. and Canada in
1991 was estimated to be 2334. The 1996 census estimated the total number
of breeding pairs to be 2796.
Several hours after hatching, piping plover chicks are
capable of walking several meters from the nest and peck at the ground but
probably do not obtain food at this time (Cairns 1982). Piping plovers will
often walk and run as opposed to flying, so as to be less conspicuous. Piping
plovers are also able to "jump" with the aid of their wings. Male
piping plovers perform elaborate aerial flights over breeding territories as
courtship displays (Haig 1992).
Mating systems in Charadrius melodus are
considered monogamous, but because nests are often destroyed at the beginning of
the breeding season, new mates can be chosen at this time. One brood per year is
characteristic of C. melodus, although the female is capable of
laying several clutches if a nest is destroyed (Haig 1992).
Most birds will remain paired throughout the
breeding season but change mates between years (Haig and Oring 1988). A
Minnesota study showed that 84% of breeding Piping Plovers returned to
approximately the same nesting location, but that only 47% showed mate retention
from the previous year (Wiens and Cuthbert 1988). In Manitoba, 70 % returned to
the same site the following year and 30 of 37 birds changed mates (Haig and
Clutch size is generally 4 eggs per nest. Egg
color is light, blending in well with the color of the sandy nest site.
Eggs are incubated continuously, with parents trading places every 30 - 45
1992). Chicks are precocial and often leave the nest within hours of hatching
(Lopez and West 1994). Chicks are tended until fledging which can occur 21 - 35 days later
depending on geographic location (Prindville et al 1988).
IV. PHYSICAL TOLERANCES
V. COMMUNITY ECOLOGY
Freshwater and marine invertebrates including worms, crustaceans and
mollusks as well as terrestrial insects are considered to be preferred food
items for Piping Plovers (Haig 1992). It has been suggested that before piping
plover restoration attempts are made to former habitats that invertebrate
populations be assessed in both currently occupied as well as proposed
restoration sites (Nordstrom and Ryan 1996).
Predator exclosure cages (Rimmer and
Deblinger 1990) are now in wide use in order to protect the endangered Piping
Plover from predation and other disturbances. Nest abandonment in exclosure
cages without a cover was significantly less than in cages with cover (Vaske et
al 1994). Vertebrate predators of Piping Plovers adults, chicks and eggs have
been known for some time. It was also known that ghost crabs prey on young
Piping Plover chicks, particularly at night. In addition, a study on Virginia
Barrier Islands in 1994, revealed that ghost crabs also prey on unhatched Piping Plover
eggs (Watts and Bradshaw 1995).
Breeding Piping Plovers have three separate populations occurring in: 1) the
northern Great Plains; 2) the western Great Lakes; and 3) the Atlantic Coast
(Newfoundland to South Carolina) (Haig and Oring 1985; Haig 1992; Dyer 1993) A
1991 international census showed that most wintering piping plovers occurred in
Texas and along the Gulf Coast where ocean beach was the preferred habitat
followed by sand or algal flats in protected bays. Populations of breeding
Piping Plovers were greatest in the northern Great Plains (63.2%) and the
Atlantic Coast (36 %) while only 39 pairs remained on the Great Lakes (Haig and
Pilsner 1993). Atlantic and Great Lake Piping Plovers primarily used sandy
beaches as habitat. Northern Great Plains plovers used shorelines around
alkaline lakes as well as reservoir beaches, river islands and adjacent sand
pits and beaches on large lakes (Haig and Pilsner 1993).
A study on Assateague Island National
Seashore, MD showed that Piping Plover chicks reared on bay side beaches and
island interiors had better survival and foraging rates and spent more time
foraging than chicks reared on ocean beaches. Chicks from ocean sites eventually
migrated to island interiors and bay side beaches along unvegetated paths
created by winter storms. The preservation of these paths is necessary to
provide access to high quality habitat to insure population stability (Loegering
and Fraser 1995).
Nocturnal foraging behavior of the Piping Plover was studied along the New
Jersey coast. During pre-nesting and fledgling stages of the breeding cycle, the
greatest number of adults fed in the intertidal zone; during late ebb and
early flood tides. Time spent on vigilant behavior (staying alert) as
opposed to foraging for food was greater in individuals occupied with incubation
or brood rearing. Daytime pecking rates were higher than nocturnal pecking rates
(Staine and Burger 1994).
Wintering birds along the Alabama coast spent
the majority of time foraging as opposed to resting and preening. Less than 5%
of time was spent on territorial, agonistic, vigilant and locomoting behaviors
combined (Johnson and Baldassarre 1988).
Piping Plovers nest in proximity to American Avocets in wetland beaches of
the northern Great Plains (Mayer and Ryan 1991) . Along the New Jersey coast,
Piping Plovers nesting near Least Terns were more reproductively successful and
derived more protection from predators (Burger 1987).
VI. SPECIAL STATUS
Endangered or Threatened
Notes on Special Status:
In 1986, Charadrius melodus was listed as endangered in the
Great Lakes region, and as threatened throughout the rest of its U.S. range by
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (U.S. Government 1985; Sidle et al 1991; Haig
1992; Dyer 1993). In Canada, C. melodus was also listed as endangered by
the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (Haig 1995).
Historically, breeding pairs of Piping Plover
in the Great Lakes region were estimated at over 800. Dramatic decline in
breeding populations in the Great Lakes region was attributed to habitat loss in
the 1940's and 50's. When listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service in 1986, only 17 breeding pairs remained (Powell and Cuthbert 1992).
The 1996 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Census reported 32 breeding pairs of piping
plovers in the Great Lakes Region, with all but one pair counted in
Michigan. Census results from the Great Plains Region showed 1392 breeding
pairs, while the Atlantic Coast Region showed 1372 breeding pairs.
Piping Plover population declines have been
attributed to human disturbance, habitat loss and predation (Patterson et al
1991; Vaske et al 1994). Management strategies targeted at beachgoers and
off-road vehicles include fencing of appropriate habitat, beach closures, pet
restrictions and public education (Melvin et al 1991).
Notes on Endemism:
Endemic to North America.
Benefit in the IRL:
Report by: J. Dineen,
Smithsonian Marine Station
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Page last updated: July 25, 2001