Ex-smokers, vegans and the weight of Piping Plovers.

Great he’s stopped banging on about Ringed Plovers. There is only so much you can take from someone who has just discovered something ‘new’. It’s a bit like ex-smokers continually telling people how important fresh air is. Or that joke, ‘How do you know there’s a vegan on the bus you’re on?’ ‘They tell you!’

But Ringed Plovers? Just give it a rest, they are not globally threatened. There’s enough to go around and I can get them on my year list easily.

Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus). Now that’s different. They are ‘near threatened’ with a global population about 8000. They are exotic, breeding on sparsely vegetated shorelines of the Atlantic coast of Canada and the United States; the Great Lakes; and the U.S. Great Plains and Canadian Prairies. They winter along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States and Mexico, as well as in the Caribbean.

Image-1 (1)

This is a bit of a leap, three Ringed Plover posts for the UKs 30,000 wintering population, fine. Then a pond jump, to a global treat, what’s the story?

Piping Plovers are considered cute little birds, scurrying along shorelines with their precocial (and adorable) young. This has helped muster large numbers of dedicated workers and volunteers to come to the aid of these vulnerable birds.

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However, they are not universally loved. Management can involve seasonal closures of prime recreational beaches to vehicles, dogs, humans even on 4th July. Reactions to closures often reach the media resulting in negative backlash.

hey audubon

Oh, I see, if things are too good to be true, they usually are. He is trying to argue that Piping Plovers are like Ringed Plovers. Slow up there that’s some stretch. Just tell the story of the bird and be done.

It was early in September 2017. If there was any chance of seeing Piping Plover it was going to be on the broad sandy stretches south of Stone Harbour, north of Cape May, but even then it was a slim chance. Having earlier bumped into a couple down from Canada in their SUV to photograph birds, there was not going to be a sharing of gen. They had shown themselves, the day before, to be able to peel an orange in their pocket without anyone smelling it.

Walking south over the last ridge of dunes a vast expanse of sandy beach opened up, and even though the tide was rising there was a lot of sand. In the distance there were some American Oystercatchers, they were not, ‘just like ours but different’. In the swirl of pink legs and sand blowing from the dunes there was one Piping Plover, as unexpected as it was beautiful. Then it was gone. Smitten. The oystercatchers moved not because of us or the rising tide, but a runner was going along the shoreline.

A month earlier, a paper on Piping Plover had been submitted for publication. It described the impact of habitat loss on shorebirds and how this is made worse by human recreational use. This further reduces the amount of coastal habitat that is functionally available for feeding and roosting. This has consequences for the condition of individual birds and for a plover’s lifecycle.

Piping Plovers in disturbed sites were 7% lighter than those in less disturbed sites during this non-breeding season review. Additionally, annual survival was lower from birds using more disturbed areas. Site fidelity though, appeared to be the same whether birds wintered on disturbed or less disturbed beaches. Plovers do not readily relocate, they may use valuable resources and find somewhere less suitable -better the devil you know.
These associations among non-breeding circumstances, body condition, and demography highlight the importance of nonbreeding habitats to annual population dynamics of migratory species. Is this true for other Charadrius or is it just Piping Plovers? We may never know as birds generally become rare before they attract funding to do the research. So, we may never know if Ringed Plovers behave like this. But let’s just guess.

Piping Plovers are at the lower end of the biometrics for Ringed Plover and could be considered small Ringed Plovers as there is no indication that they are any more specialist in their habits or requirements. It’s their habitat that restricts them not a behaviour or food item. So, what conclusion can be drawn?

Most if not all Ringed Plovers on County Durham’s beaches in the non-breeding season will not try to breed here. The beaches are either not suitable -not sandy with pebbles, or they are highly disturbed during the breeding season. Most plovers will move back to their breeding grounds from March*. Based on this research it would be rare for a Ringed Plover to leave County Durham and reach its breeding ground in optimum breeding condition.

So here is the challenge to the nagging voice in this commentary who is bored with Ringed Plovers. Given we are going to have to wait for them to become rare before we do something it is unlikely, anytime soon that the plight of the Ringed Plover will get any attention. It is almost by accident that protection is given to Ringed Plovers -the few that nest inside the fence of a tern colony. Little Terns are after all already rare and worthy of consideration.

So yes, perhaps stop banging on about Ringed Plovers is the best thing to do. Most counties that border the North Sea had Ringed Plovers on their Bio-diversity Action Plan (BAP) and breeding success got worse. Not only that, we are sending birds back to northern Europe in poor condition so a decline in the species is guaranteed. And to the nagging voice there is no appetite to change this.

* It is suggested that most Ringed Plovers in the UK come from the North West -Greenland, Iceland and Canada. This does not hold true for County Durham (or for that matter Northumberland or Cleveland). The ringing recoveries for the County show a north-east/south-west direction of travel with birds returning to northern Europe and getting as far as France suggesting that mainly ssp hiaticula is involved.
However, the records of birds from Iceland suggest ssp psammodroma move through the region and records from Norway and Senegal suggest ssp tundrae also can be found in the North East and are worth looking for.

Gibson D, Chaplin M K, Hunt K L, Friedrich M J, Weithman C E, et. al. (2018) The Condor, 120(3) : 566-580

Gratto-Trevor C L and Abbott S. (2011) Conservation of Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) in North America: science, successes, and challenge. Can. J. Zool. 89: 401–418.

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