Thursday, August 14, 2014

Piping Plover braves Conneaut!

A typical scene at the "sand spit" at Conneaut Harbor, Ohio. Conneaut is wedged into the extreme northeastern corner of Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie. It is a legendary birding locale, and in this photo birders mingle with legions of typically much more intrusive users of the harbor. John Pogacnik and I had led this trip to Conneaut last fall, and we saw lots of interesting birds. But both birds and birders must dodge numerous cars and other vehicles on the sands, wind-surfers soaring over the waters, bird-chasing dogs roaring about, and a host of other people-related disturbances.

In spite of its activity, the sheltered sandy flats in the Conneaut Harbor manage to serve as refugia for migrant shorebirds. Many of these sandpipers and plovers are making long-distance hauls from the highest regions of the Arctic tundra, where they breed, to places as distant as South America. Small birds that engage in annual journeys that span great distances need places to stop, rest, and refuel, and Conneaut provides such a way station. At least intermittently, as the birds are frequently disturbed by the seemingly ever-present people and their attendant hijinks.

Photo: Dane Adams

On July 31 of this year, Dane Adams found the bird above at Conneaut, an absolutely stunning juvenile Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus. He graciously allowed me to share his beautiful image. Note all of the multicolored bands festooning the bird's legs. The colors and combinations of those bands allow the bird to be specifically identified, thus enabling researchers to track its movements.

Piping Plovers have not fared well against the onslaught of Homo sapiens. There are three core breeding areas for the tiny plovers: the Great Plains states and adjacent Canadian prairie provinces; the Atlantic coast; and sandy shores of the Great Lakes. Collectively, probably fewer than 6,000 birds still exist. People love beaches, and human excesses have driven obligate beach-nesting bird species such as the Piping Plover away from numerous historical nesting grounds.

All populations have declined considerably, but the Great Lakes Piping Plovers have really taken it on the chin. In 2013, only 66 pairs were documented as nesting, and they fledged a grand total of 124 chicks. That was actually a good year, for recent times. The vast majority of these nesters were on Michigan beaches, with the largest aggregation in the vicinity of Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan (23 pairs in 2013). In fact, eight days prior to Dane's find, another Piping Plover stopped in at Conneaut and it proved to have come from a Sleeping Bear Dunes nest.

Thanks to the work of Bob Lane, who tracked down the specifics of Dane's bird using the band combination, we know that the bird was born this summer on beaches near Wasaga Beach, Ontario, Canada. That's on the southern lobe of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, and about 175 miles due north of Conneaut. As only a few pairs of the Great Lakes Piping Plover population nest in Canada, this little bird is a rarity indeed.

Here's hoping the charismatic, diminutive plover (one weighs about the same as a plump strawberry) makes it safely to its winter destination - beaches of the southern Atlantic or Gulf Coast. And then returns to the Great Lakes to successfully nest, and produce more charming little plovers.

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