Thursday, January 10, 2008

Piping Plover

Audubon South Carolina continues to work for the protecion of shorebirds and their habitats. On our webpage, you can read about our efforts to protect shorebird nesting islands in the Charleston area.

Tuesday evening, we made a presentation to the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society regarding the education program at the Francis Beidler Forest and our new webpage. At the meeting, Howard Costa, the president, asked for a volunteer to help him in the ongoing Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) survey on the island. Our schedule for the next day was flexible, so we made plans for a morning of very specific birding.

Piping Plovers are threatened throughout their wintering range, which is mainly along the South Atlantic, Gulf and Caribbean coasts. The birds on Hilton Head Island are counted in the critical habitat at the northeast "elbow" of the island desginated South Carolina Unit #15 (map). This area is on the southwest side of the entrance to Port Royal Sound and is across from Bay Point Island, which is a tremendous habitat for shorebirds and currently privately-owned and undeveloped. The Piping Plovers on Hilton Head Island could be from the Northern Great Plains, Great Lakes, or Atlantic Coast populations. Banding on the legs (as seen in the image) helps scientists determine to which population the bird belongs.

"Breeding and wintering plovers feed on exposed wet sand in wash zones; intertidal ocean beach; wrack lines; washover passes; mud-, sand-, and algal flats; and shorelines of streams, ephemeral ponds, lagoons, and salt marshes by probing for invertebrates at or just below the surface. They use beaches adjacent to foraging areas for roosting and preening. Small sand dunes, debris, and sparse vegetation within adjacent beaches provides shelter from wind and extreme temperatures." --U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Beyond protecting the critical habitat like that on the northern end of Hilton Head Island, we work to educate the public regarding threats to all shorebirds not simply the threatened or endangered species. After habitat loss, humans and their pets getting too close is the next major threat to the survival of shorebirds.

Shorebirds generally nest in the open with the eggs being extremely well-camouflaged on the ground. Walking through or letting a dog run through a nesting area can be devastating! Distrubing a nesting area can cause the adults to leave the nest, which exposes the eggs or young to predators and the brutal heat of the direct sunlight. On the wintering grounds, large numbers of shorebirds will congregate on the beach at high tide to rest before feeding when the tide goes out. Distrubing the birds (walking too close, allowing dogs to run on the beach, allowing children to chase the birds) causes the birds to expend energy unnecessarily for flight or movement and exposes them to the elements when they leave their sheltered positions. Imagine being snug within a cocoon of blankets on the couch with the winter wind howling outside. Now, image that every five minutes the doorbell rang and you had to get out from under your warm blankets and open the front door to a blast of Arctic air. It would be difficult to stay warm and you would certainly not be well-rested.

Shorebirds on barrier islands previously enjoyed a life isolated from human disturbance. Today, that isolation is difficult to find. However, humans can recognized the needs of shorebirds and give them the space and peace they need to enjoy a good nap between meals!

Image by Jeff Mollenhauer

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