‘THE DITZY CHICKS’ & ‘THE BEACH BYRDS’: BANDS TO ADMIRE
WORLD SHOREBIRDS DAY – PIPING PLOVER MIGRATION
Piping plovers are rare, tiny, unutterably cute, weigh about 2oz – and every Fall they fly south 1000 miles or more to warmer climes. Abaco is one such clime. The data collected during the 4 years of the ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH project shows annual counts of ±250 individual birds found either in flocks in specific hotspots, or more randomly in small groups, pairs or singles. Certain areas on the Cays are also popular. Of all these, around 10% have been banded in their breeding grounds, almost always as chicks – many with in a day or two of hatching.
To set the scene (the story is developed below). The 3 tiny chicks with the ring bling in the large photos hatched at a Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey about 10 days ago. Their parents are Squid and Sophie. The scientists who captured, weighed, measured and banded them also named them, for reasons which will become apparent, Keith, Cherokee and Abaco. This post aims to explain the background story, and in particular the great significance of banding as a tool of research into rare species.
At the outset – and because a few people express concern – I’d better add that no deleterious effects arise from banding. The bands are not constricting, and the birds are unaware of them. Individual banded birds are often seen year after year at either end of their migration or at both; and sometimes during stopovers along the way: they have all survived being banded, Also, if the scientists and conservationists were to take risks with the chicks in their care by using inappropriate methods, they would in fact be damaging or destroying the very creatures they have dedicated their skills to preserving.
WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THIS SPECIES?
PIPL are not just rare, they are IUCN Red-listed as ‘near-threatened’. Last Autumn the IUCN estimate for adult birds was 8000 (now, in 2021, a greater number). The summer breeding grounds are located in quite specific areas of North America and Canada.
These vulnerable little shorebirds nest in scrapes on the beaches and forage on the shoreline. They face many dangers including predation (eg gulls, cats, foxes), human activities and disturbance (eg the inalienable right to use beaches for off-road fun), and habitat degradation (eg. development, encroachment, and pollution). This last is the greatest problem of the three, and it is of course the responsibility – or fault – of humans. Fortunately, the establishment of extensive coastal / shoreline wildlife refuges has provided managed habitat and careful protection in some areas.
WHERE DOES BANDING COME INTO ALL THIS?
For the purposes of the ongoing scientific investigation and conservation research, the wildlife organisations in each area carry out programs to examine, measure, weigh and band birds on their ‘home’ beach. This process builds a database year on year against which the health of the birds and also the habitat can be measured.
Banding enables individuals to be identified and observed in the breeding grounds; and crucially, where the birds overwinter (see below). Birds are given flags or bands or both in unique combinations. These may be put on one or both legs; mostly they will be on the upper leg(s), but sometimes the lower legs are also used; unique alphanumerics or coloured dots provide further means of ID. Some locations have a tradition of naming the chicks during banding. Thus one Abaco bird ‘Green Flag AH3’ became ‘Atari’ . Felicia Fancybottom is the most exotic name so far (she had a random posterior-feather sticking out when banded).
On Abaco, we sometimes give unnamed overwintering banded birds an ID to avoid confusion, for easy reference, or actually just for fun. For example Green Flag 70E became (obviously) ‘Joe’.
HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS IN PRACTICE
MANY HAPPY RETURNS FOR ‘SQUID’
January 2, 2018 a female bird called ‘SQUID’ was resighted on Abaco at Casuarina. Her bands were: upper left, blue on black; upper right, green on red (photo below). Checks of the band combination produced the following information:
- originated from the Holgate unit of Edwin B. Forsythe NWR in NJ, banded there as a female
- monitored and researched by Conserve Wildlife Foundation NJ
- recorded at the same location the previous summer so had already completed Fall and Spring migration, returning to the same beach where she hatched and fledged.
- named for the bander’s mom’s cat
July 29 2018 SQUID was resighted for the second year at the same location on Casuarina flats, Abaco, the first banded bird of the season. She was also the last to leave, in mid-March – a stay of of around 8 months. During that time, APPW beach monitor Keith Kemp saw Squid on several occasions, all in the immediate area of Cherokee Sound (of which Casuarina is a part).
LATE MAY / EARLY JUNE 2019 Resighted for the third season at EBF, and nested with male (as it has turned out) called Sophia! Sexing tiny newly hatched chicks is not an exact science. Originally there were 4 eggs, but on June 2 only 3 chicks hatched – ‘nature’ had intervened with the 4th. They were named ABACO, CHEROKEE… and KEITH (a kindly nod both to monitor Keith Kemp and perhaps to me as well). The chicks were captured by Michelle Stantial of SUNY, in conjunction with CWFNJ, to be banded, weighed, and measured so they can be monitored and assessed for growth, beach activity, and protection purposes. In a couple of months these chicks will themselves feel the urge to fly south, and will continue the annual PIPL migration cycle.
WHAT HAS THE RESEARCH REVEALED SO FAR – AND IS IT USEFUL?
SQUID is an excellent example of conservation, research, and science (both pro and citizen) in action. From his story we can conclude the following:
- Squid has been on the same summer beach in NJ for 3 years running
- She has also overwintered for 2 years running in the same location on Abaco
- So she has flown 4 migrations of c1000 miles with extraordinary location accuracy
- This is a prime example of ‘beach loyalty’, a vital ingredient for species conservation
- At 2 oz, she is a doughty and determined survivor of all the dangers arising from such long journeys
- The habitats at both ends of the migration are good and safe, without notable degradation
- The nesting success with A, C and K adds 3 more birds to the population, if they all fledge and survive
- There is every chance that Squid will be seen on Abaco this Fall
- There is some chance that at least one of the chicks will turn up on Abaco too; or in the Bahamas anyway
This story is one example of many similar ones that occur every season. One plover, Bahama Mama from Michigan, has spent the last 5 winters on the same Abaco shoreline. Overall, there is optimism that the conservation measures in place will prevent the decline and encourage the increase of the species. There’s a lot of dedication that goes into all this. I think it can be fairly said that the story of Squid and Sophia’s little family is a both reward for that dedication, and a sign of hope for the future.
Credits: Michelle Stantial / SUNY; Todd Pover / CWFNJ; Holgate Unit EBF NWR; Stephanie Egger (now with NOAA); photos from Keith Kemp, Kim / CWFNJ, ‘Northside’ Jim Verhagen LBI