THE DITZY CHICKS & THE BEACH BYRDS: BANDS TO ADMIRE


Piping Plover Chick Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial)

‘KEITH’

‘THE DITZY CHICKS’ & ‘THE BEACH BYRDS’: BANDS TO ADMIRE

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% are banded. All the birds are banded in their breeding grounds, usually as chicks (apart from a few ‘pink flags’ banded as adults on Long Beach, South Abaco). 

Piping Plover Chick Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial)

‘CHEROKEE’

SQUID’S KIDS

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.

Piping Plover Chick

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. 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.

Piping Plover Chick Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial)

‘ABACO’

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 ‘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’.

Piping Plover Banding Box (Steph Egger)

Bander’s Box: H22 is now on ‘Harry Potter’

Piping Plover Chick NJ (Kim / CWFNJ)

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS IN PRACTICE

MANY HAPPY RETURNS FOR ‘SQUID’

January 2, 2018 the 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 Sping migrartion, returning to the same beach where she hatched and fledged.
  • named for the bander’s mom’s cat
Piping Plover, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

‘SQUID’

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 me and to monitor Keith Kemp). 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.

Piping Plover Chick Banding, Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial / Todd Pover)

Squid being banded by Michelle Stantial in July 2017

 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

Piping Plover Chick, LBI (Northside Jim)

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.

NOT THE DITZY CHICKS!

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

Piping Plover Chick, LBI (Northside Jim)

Goodbye, and well done for sticking it out to the end

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD


Piping Plover Bahama Mama, Michigan / Abaco (Carol Cooper)

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD

The bird in the header image is the presciently named Bahama Mama in Muskegon State Park, Michigan – so, one of the rare Great lakes piping plovers. She originally hatched and was banded as a chick in 2014 at Tawas MI, some distance away from Muskegon. When later named in 2015 by Muskegon monitor Carol Cooper, no one could possibly have known then where she would chose to overwinter. The Bahamas, as it turned out – the avian equivalent of nominative determinism.

Piping Plover Chick (MDF / Wiki)

This little bird is the perfect example to demonstrate the success of (a) an organised monitoring and recording system in the breeding grounds of these rare birds; (b) the use of easily identified coded banding and (c) the deployment of ‘citizen scientists’ to back up the professionals in the overwintering grounds such a Abaco.

A combination of the three factors leads over time to the compilation of a life story. Invariably there will be gaps, but let’s take a look at what we know about Bahama Mama, in her own dedicated timeline. Note two things: her beach fidelity; and the evidence of mate infidelity…

  • 2014 Born Muskegon State Park, MI
  • 2015 Nested with Little Guy and raised chicks. Winter location unknown
  • 2016 Returned to Muskegon and again successfully nested with a new male, Bear, from Sleeping Bear Dunes Park MI. (Little Guy went off with another female on the same beach…)
  • 2016 Resighted in October on Long Beach Abaco and stayed for several months
  • 2017 Back at Muskegon and raised chicks again with Little Guy
  • 2017 Again resighted  in October on Long Beach Abaco and overwintered
  • 2018 Back at Muskegon, initially back with Little Guy, eventually nested with Enforcer

The official record of the latest union – evidence of fickleness

This summer 4 chicks  were hatched. Sadly, one of them (Ringo, 2 pics below) was lost, presumed predated, leaving 3 to fledge.

Bahama Mama with one of her chicksBahama Mama & Chick, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Little Ringo RIPRingo Piping Plover, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Another of the chicks

These are rare and threatened birds, vulnerable at both ends of their migration for all the usual reasons. The studies undertaken at both ends of the migration have revealed astonishing beach loyalty in these little birds that travel up to 1500 miles (sometimes more) every Spring and every Fall to be somewhere safe to nest and breed; and then to overwinter. In Michigan, Carol Cooper is Bahama Mama’s mama, watching over her, recording the details, checking when she has left the beach, and anxiously watching each Spring for her arrival home.

On Abaco, these duties – pleasures, even – are undertaken by ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH and the team of citizen scientists who keep an eye on the beaches, count the birds, note the banded birds and photograph them for ID, and pass the info on to HQ (which happens to be me). The data from all sightings is collated and then the season’s stats are compiled and provided to the scientists involved. Here’s a summary of stats for last season: 

Abaco Piping Plover Watch Stats 2017-18 (Keith Salvesen)

Bahama Mama, first sighting on Long Beach Abaco Oct 2017Bahama Mama Piping Plover, Long Beach Abaco (Keith Kemp)

Photo Credits: Carol Cooper (1, 3, 4, 5, 6); MDF (2); Keith Kemp (7). Special thanks to Carol Cooper, monitor in Michigan; and to Keith Kemp, primary monitor on Abaco. Also to Todd Pover CWFNJ and all the other real scientists involved for the last 3 years

POLITE REQUEST

If you live on Abaco or its cays anytime between August and March and might be interested in helping with piping plover research by becoming a monitor, please get in touch with me. It’s very simple and undemanding. A beach stroll from time to time – even as little as once a month – with a notebook, pencil, binoculars, a chocolate bar and (preferably for accurate ID of banded birds) a camera. Not a dog, though. Not on this walk anyway! Every report, even of a single bird, adds to the picture. Last season there was more than one ‘citizen scientist’ sighting of a plover where none had been seen before. 

PIPING PLOVERS ON GRAND BAHAMA (for a change…)


Piping Plover, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

PIPING PLOVERS ON GRAND BAHAMA (for a change…)

I used to go on a bit about piping plovers*, because they are so special. Rare. Endangered. Creatures rewarding observation, and deserving research and conservation. Most of all, they favour the Bahamas for their winter migration destination.  The islands – especially Abaco, Grand Bahama and Andros – provide a safe and unspoiled habitat for them in winter. The photographs shown here are piping plovers taken on Grand Bahama in early September by well-known birding guide Erika Gates, who has kindly given me use permission.

Piping Plover, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

These days, ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH diverts PIPL from these pages to a dedicated Facebook page. Now in its 3rd season, useful data is being collected for the research teams in the breeding grounds in North America by volunteer beach monitors**. Some are regular, some are occasional, some are one-off reporters: all contribute to the overall picture. In particular we are able to identify individual banded birds and track them back to their summer locations.

Piping Plover, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

WHAT USE IS THAT?

Almost every banded bird resighted this season is a returner to exactly the same beach as before. Some are here for their third or even fourth year. These tiny birds are therefore surviving a journey of between 1000 and 2000 miles each autumn and again each spring – and locating their favourite beaches with unerring accuracy. A few are resighted en route during their migration; often we get reports of their nesting and breeding news during the summer.  Their little lives can be pieced together.

Piping Plover, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

AND THE CONCLUSION TO BE DRAWN?

The summer breeding grounds generally have conservation programs that help to protect the nesting birds from danger and disturbance. Those are the most vulnerable weeks for the adults and their chicks. The arrival of the plovers each autumn on Grand Bahama, Abaco and elsewhere in the Bahamas demonstrates their ‘beach fidelity’. They are confident that the beaches offer a safe and secure winter habitat where they are left alone. And when the time comes in Spring, they will be ready to make the long journey north again for the breeding season.

Piping Plover, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

* uncouth reader “you certainly did…

** additional volunteers welcome! If you walk a beach once a fortnight or even a month, own a piece of paper & a pencil, can count, and ideally have a camera or even a phone, you too can be a citizen scientist!

Photo credits: all photos, Erika Gates, with many thanks. Erika’s related websites are 

A-PIPIN’ & A-PLOVIN’ ON ABACO: PIPL POWER


piping-plover-delphi-beach-Abaco-peter-mantle-11-16

A-PIPIN’ & A-PLOVIN’ ON ABACO: PIPL POWER

Last year someone kindly reported a lone piping plover sighting on ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH. I like to get a few details, so I asked what it was doing (meaning: sleeping / mooching / foraging / flying?). She replied – and I knew exactly what she meant – “Oh, a-pipin’ and a-plovin’ about on the beach”. A very evocative description of how these tiny scuttling birds pass their days!

Green Flag YLO, renamed Coco for short
Piping Plover 2-aug-4-long-beach-Abaco-5-birds-inc-ylo

The A P P Watch is now into its 4th month. The earliest reported arrival for the fall winter / winter season was as early as July 30. The first banded bird was reported on August 4, in a small group of 5. The leg bands (upper right Green Flag coded YLO; upper left Orange Band) at once confirmed the bird as an unnamed returner originating from Fire Island National Seashore NY – to the very same beach where it was sighted last December. That is known as ‘beach fidelity’, and is a most important piece of conservation data, because it is evidence that the beaches of Abaco provide a safe and unspoilt winter habitat for this vulnerable and threatened species. YLO was renamed Coco to reward his contribution to empirical conservation study.

piping-plover

We didn’t have to wait long for the next banded bird, one that had undertaken the longest journey we have yet come across, nearly 2000 miles (direct) from Big Barachois, Newfoundland. Black Flag 58 was soon traced to his origin and details of his adventurous life were uncovered – two summers on the same breeding beach, and a spring sighting on Long Island, NY. 

Piping Plover from Newfoundland: 4-aug-6-winding-bay abaco -keith kemp-jpgnewfoundland-to-abaco-map

The next find was a precious ‘Bahama Pink’ on Long Beach, known simply as… Pink Flag #50. She was banded on the same beach in 2014; resighted there in December 2015; and had returned for her third visit before the end of August 2016. The perfect example of ‘beach fidelity’.

Piping Plover, Abaco Bahamas: pink flag 50 (Keith Kemp)

In the same group that day was another exciting find, this time a new bird Green Flag 2AN originating from the same place as Coco above: Fire Island National Seashore, NY. Piping Plover, Abaco, Bahamas, Green Flag 2AN-aug (Keith Kemp)13880178_343177786027819_6547752228912195883_n

There was a bit of a lull with banded bird sightings until October, when ‘Taco’ from the Holgate Unit, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, NJ showed up. We had two other birds from the same location last season. 

Piping Plover "Taco", Abaco, Bahamas 2016

Soon after, a returner from last season arrived back on his same beach to join Taco. Jonesy was originally ‘Mrs Jones’, as in the song, until he was identified as a male and had to be renamed. He originated from the Ninigret NWR, R.I. He and Taco are still keeping company – they were seen together only yesterday.

Piping Plover Jonesy, Abaco, Bahamas 2016 (Keith Kemp)sandy-point-ri-to-winding-bay

Finally, a warm Abaco welcome please to the aptly named Bahama Mama, a rare Great Lakes bird from Muskegon State Park, MI, resighted in early November.  She was found on the same beach in December last year. Bahama Mama - Great Lakes Piping Plover on Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Kemp)15027859_392958301049767_8409742050501259206_n

So far this season, all the banded birds have been positively identified except one – a tantalising possible sighting of last year’s ‘Bird of the Season’ Tuna on ‘his’ beach.  From a distance shot the bands on one leg looked right… but all-in-all the image is simply not clear enough (and heavily pixellated with onscreen adjustments) to be certain. 

If it is indeed Tuna, then five of the banded birds so far are returners, in each case to the same beach as last year. The chart below is a draft (there’ll no doubt be some tidying up as the season progresses)

Piping Plovers on Abaco-id-chart-2-p-1-jpg

Credits: Peter Mantle (header image); Keith Kemp; Rhonda Pearce – and with thanks to all monitors