Color banding shows movement of piping plovers
January 25, 2015 9:15 am • By LAUREN R. DINAN / Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
It’s always around this time of year that I really start to miss summer. I miss those warm days, long walks, family picnics and looking for piping plovers. That might not be on everyone’s list of favorite summer activities, but it is the highlight of my summer.
Piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) are small, stocky, sand-colored shorebirds that spend the summer nesting here in Nebraska and the winter on beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, southern Atlantic Coast and Caribbean. They nest on sandbars, reservoir shorelines and sandpit lakes along the Platte, Loup, Elkhorn, Niobrara and Missouri rivers in Nebraska.
The Nongame Bird Program at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have been color banding adult piping plovers and their chicks along the lower Platte River system in eastern Nebraska since 2008. So far, 431 plovers have been banded, 114 adults and 317 chicks, which is quite a few for a threatened species.
Color banding allows us to identify individual birds so we can better understand how the species is doing: are numbers up or down, are they successfully reproducing, and are they surviving the winter? All important issues for a species currently listed as threatened on the state and federal endangered species list.
Adult and chick survival varies from year to year and depends on a number of factors: weather conditions, the amount of available food and so on. Each summer, we construct individual encounter histories for all of the observed color-banded plovers, which allows us to estimate adult and chick survival.
Color banding also shows us how piping plovers move across the landscape. Plovers banded along the lower Platte system have been observed along the Missouri, Niobrara and the central Platte rivers. Plovers originally banded in these areas have also been found nesting along the lower Platte system. Adult plovers nesting along the lower Platte most often return to there the following year, but chicks hatched there are likely to nest elsewhere.
In 2014, three plovers originally banded along the lower Platte as adults and nine banded as chicks nested along the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska. Two plovers originally banded along the central Platte and nine originally banded along the Missouri nested along the lower Platte River system in 2014. The little guys do get around.
Color banding helps us understand where our plovers spend the winter. Our plovers spread out across their winter range from the southern tip of Texas to the Florida Keys and all the way up the Atlantic Coast to South Carolina. So far this fall and winter we have received reports of 23 lower Platte plovers along the Gulf Coast and two along the Atlantic Coast.
The plover pictured here, with its light blue flag and green-over-red, red-over-green bands, has been a fun bird to follow. This plover was color-banded as an adult in June 2014 at a sand and gravel mine in Saunders County. It hatched and raised four chicks and was last seen in Nebraska in late June. The next time the plover was seen, it was about 1,000 miles away enjoying the sun, sand and surf at Padre Island, Texas, in October 2014.
Which of our plovers will return to Nebraska to nest in the summer of 2015? We’ll find out soon, but gosh it’s hard to wait.
Chick mortality leads to male-biased sex ratios in endangered Great Lakes Piping Plovers: here.