10. Chickadee Notes

Piping Plover in New Brunswick 


Piping PloverBy the beginning of the twentieth century uncontrolled shooting for the millinery trade and egg collecting had greatly reduced populations of many shorebirds, including those of the Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus. In some areas Piping Plover were close to extirpation. Following passage of the Canada-United States Migratory Birds Convention Act in 1917, and as the market for bird feathers disappeared with the changing whims of fashion, Piping Plover numbers recovered. For a period the species was once again considered common. Unfortunately that recovery was short-lived. A general decline in Piping Plover populations has been noted since the 1950s.

In New Brunswick 91 pairs of Piping Plover were recorded nesting...

Since 1985 the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has considered the Piping Plover endangered. This federal-provincial body, although lacking legislative power, monitors populations of Canadian plants and animals. The Piping Plover is also listed as endangered in the United States. A 1991 Piping Plover population census showed 2441 pairs nesting at 728 sites in North America. Eight hundred and twenty-five of these pairs were observed nesting at 203 sites in Canada. In New Brunswick 91 pairs of Piping Plover were recorded nesting on 24 isolated, undisturbed washover beaches and offshore islands along the Gulf of St. Lawrence coastline. More than 50% of these birds were concentrated on the Acadian peninsula from Miscou to Nequac. A single nesting pair was found at Waterside Beach, Albert County, along the Bay of Fundy. Over the last decade numbers of Piping Plover nesting in New Brunswick have remained fairly stable at 85 to 100 pairs.

Although there is little historical information on the status of the Piping Plover in New Brunswick populations may have declined here since the last century. Writing in 1862, local ornithologist George Boardman stated that Piping Plover bred in mid-June on the islands at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. Since then there have been no breeding records for that part of New Brunswick.

Natural History

The Piping Plover is a sparrow- sized bird weighing 45 to 65 grams. The species is well camouflaged with a head and back the colour of pale dried sand. A black bar over a white forehead and a single, often broken, black breastband contrasts sharply with the white breast and abdomen. The orange-yellow legs complement an orange-yellow, black-tipped bill.

Although the sexes look much alike, males tend to have broader and more distinct black bands on the head and breast than females. Juveniles and adults in winter plumage lack the black bands on the head and breast. The call of the Piping Plover is a soft, two-noted, organ-like whistle.

Breeding Piping Plover have very specific habitat needs...

The Piping Plover breeds in three distinct regions of North America. More than half of the breeding pairs nest at the margins of saline and a few freshwater lakes in the Northern Great Plains-Prairie region. Nearly a thousand pairs nest along the Atlantic coast from South Carolina to Newfoundland, and several dozen birds nest around the Great Lakes in Michigan. The Piping Plover appears to have been extirpated from the Great Lakes region of Canada. Following a mere three to four months on the breeding grounds, Piping Plover migrate southward: central birds to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic birds from North Carolina to Florida.

Breeding Piping Plover have very specific habitat needs, requiring light coloured sand or gravel-sand beaches for nesting. Nests are always situated well above areas of normal wave action, but shifting sands and high tides often make specific sites suitable one year and unsuitable the next. Frequently nesting sites are created where beaches have been overwashed by past storms or where sections of dune have been blown out. In New Brunswick Piping Plover nesting is virtually restricted to isolated, undisturbed washover beaches and offshore islands on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Piping Plover return to New Brunswick in late April and early May from their wintering grounds, soon spreading out over sandy beaches. Male birds immediately start elaborate flight and ground displays, meant to establish territories and attract females. These displays involve slow, exaggerated wingbeats and rapid, persistent calling. The male courts the female on the ground with high marching steps and an exaggerated, upright body posture. Mating generally occurs on nesting territory.

The nest site is selected jointly by the mated pair. The male follows the female to a potential site, often between two stones. There the male lowers his breast to the ground and kicks out alternately with his legs, scratching the sand from beneath him. He then moves a short distance to another spot and repeats this activity. Meanwhile, the female continues the hollowing process at the first site. Usually there are several false starts before a nest site is finally selected by the continually peeping birds.

The completed nest is nothing more than a shell or pebble-lined depression. The four, black-speckled, buff eggs are laid at daily intervals, in New Brunswick from mid May to early June. Both birds incubate the eggs, which hatch 27-31 days following laying. Piping Plover disturbed while incubating will slip off the nest and quietly move away. However, once the eggs have hatched the birds are not so easily intimidated. The adult will feign injury, crying plaintively as it attempts to lead the intruder from the chicks. Although the eggs are well camouflaged, as are the young that hatch from them, both are preyed upon by gulls, crows, raccoons, foxes and skunks. Eggs are also frequently lost to storm waves. Piping Plover nesting in New Brunswick have been known to renest as many as three times if a clutch of eggs is destroyed, but a pair will rear only one brood each year.

Piping Plover numbers have continued to decline in North America...

As with all shorebird hatchlings, the plover chicks emerge from the eggs fully feathered. Within minutes they are dry and within several hours they have left the nest and are feeding on their own accompanied by the adult. The diet of the Piping Plover is not well known, but does include marine worms, flies and fly larvae, beetles, and small crustaceans such as beach hoppers, and molluscs. Parent birds may brood the young for up to 20 days, but by 30 days after hatching the young are flying and are completely independent. Piping Plover reach sexual maturity within a year. Although banded birds have been known to live as long as 14 years, on average life-span is five or six years.

Helping Out

Piping Plover numbers have continued to decline in North America over the past decade. Unless this trend is reversed the species faces a bleak future. The Piping Plover confronts a number of problems when it returns to its wintering grounds in the southern United States and Mexico. Continued development of recreational property, dumping of industrial wastes, oil spills and beach stabilisation programs threaten the winter beaches where this bird feeds. International cooperation is vital to secure protected wintering habitat for this species.

On nesting beaches interference from recreational activities, artificial water levels and unnatural increases in predators appear to be the principal threats. In New Brunswick the use of off-road vehicles on nesting beaches is a particular problem that has led to the disturbance of nesting birds and to the destruction of eggs, nests, and chicks. Studies in the Maritimes have shown that fledgling success of Piping Plover is much reduced on beaches with high human disturbance.

The New Brunswick Trespass Act specifically prohibits the operation of motor vehicles on beaches.

We can help save the Piping Plover in a number of ways. It is important to keep our coastal waters and beaches free of rubbish. Garbage discarded on nesting beaches draws predators and increases the risk of predation on plover eggs and chicks. Feeding gulls on beaches also increases predation and pets should always be kept on a leash while on the beach. The New Brunswick Trespass Act specifically prohibits the operation of motor vehicles on beaches. Anyone observing violations of this Act, especially on those beaches where Piping Plover are known to nest, should report the incident to the nearest office of the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources and Energy. Swimmers and beachcombers have been known to disturb Piping Plovers inadvertently, even damaging nests and eggs and frightening feeding plover chicks. Should you encounter a Piping Plover while beach walking, leave the area immediately via the shoreline. We need to be more sensitive to the needs of the Piping Plover when making use of New Brunswick beaches where they nest.

There is now a Piping Plover Guardian program in Canada. Some New Brunswick plover beaches are monitored by volunteers and signs placed to show the presence of nesting birds. You can help by heeding these warning signs and leaving these areas undisturbed during the Piping Plover nesting season. If you live near a nesting beach why not get involved as a beach monitor? Contact the Canadian Wildlife Service, or a local naturalist club for more information. If you are a beach owner and discover Piping Plover nesting on your beach you can register your property under the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. Contact the Canadian Wildlife Service for more information.

Further Reading

Burnett, J.A., C.T. Dauphine Jr., S.H. McCrindle and T. Mosquin. 1989. On the brink: endangered species in Canada. Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. 192 pp.

Cairns, W.W. 1982. Biology and behaviour of breeding Piping Plovers. Wilson Bulletin 94: 531-545.

Haig, S. 1985. Status report on the Piping Plover. Charadrius melodus. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, Ottawa. 23 pp.

Haig, S.M. 1993. Distribution and abundance of Piping Plovers: results and implications of the 1991 international census. Condor 95: 145-156.