Species Spotlight: Piping Plover

Piping Plover (Charadrius Melodus Melodus) 

The piping plover is a beloved – but critically endangered – shorebird. The Nature Conservancy of Canada reports that there are fewer than 40 breeding pairs of piping plovers in our province. The piping plover population in Nova Scotia has suffered an alarming decline of more than 25% since 2001, largely due to anthropogenic (human-caused) disturbances.

“Piping Plovers depend on dynamic, healthy coastal ecosystems. Key challenges to the recovery of this small shorebird include habitat loss from coastal development, disturbances from recreation and motorized vehicles, predator pressures, and climate change.”

 

Photos by Nova Scotian photographer Jason Dain. Please click to enlarge.

Species Facts

  • The piping plover is a migratory species. Adults return to Nova Scotia in spring to breed and then migrate south after nesting season.
  • Female piping plovers lay four eggs directly on dry sand, above the high water-mark. These nests are vulnerable to disturbance during the four-week incubation period.
  • At the time of hatching, chicks weigh roughly the same as two pennies.
  • Chicks are able to forage for food only 1-2 hours after they’ve hatched.
  • However, it takes chicks 4 weeks to be able to fly.

Recording of Piping Plover Calls from the American Bird Conservancy

Piping Plovers and Owls Head Provincial Park

“The provincial land parcel and land directly adjacent include occurrences of two SAR –Piping plover (nationally and provincially endangered) and barn swallow (nationally threatened, provincially endangered).”

Provincial Biologist Sean P. Basquill (Revealed through FOIPOP 2020-0081-DLF)

Part of Owls Head Provincial Park and the adjacent private property are mapped in the government’s significant habitat database for nesting piping plovers

As well as being included in Nova Scotia’s significant habitat database for nesting piping plovers, FOIPOP 2020-0081-DLF also reveals that a regional biologist from DNR (now known as Lands and Forestry) “observed piping plover [sic] in 2001 on that beach.”

“If it is the case that Piping Plover nest on the beaches of Owls Head as was reported by Nova Scotia Department of Environment, Protected Areas Branch, in summaries of the conservation values of this site, the construction and use phase of any development at this site are likely to interact with the critical habitat of this federally listed species at risk.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 15

There have also been local reports of piping plovers on the beach in question. Most of the beach is privately owned but some belongs to Owls Head Provincial Park. Anthony Turner, the groundskeeper for private owner (and prospective developer) Beckwith Gilbert, discussed Mr. Gilbert’s efforts to protect the piping plovers during the community meeting. You can watch the video footage, here.

Nesting Piping Plover by Bill Byrne

Conservation Status

In Nova Scotia:
Provincial Status: Endangered (“a species facing imminent extirpation or extinction”)
S-Rank from AC CDC*: S1B (“Critically Imperilled species that breeds in Nova Scotia”)

In Canada:
SARA (Species at Risk Act)Status: Schedule 1, Endangered (“A wildlife species that is facing imminent extirpation or extinction”)
COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) Status: Endangered

Sources:

* Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre
Species at Risk Registry: Piping Plover melodus subspecies
IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List

The species has been undergoing a large, significant decline over the last five decades, with an estimated annual decline of 1.86% on average (Partners in Flight 2019). This roughly equates to a decrease of 20% over three generations (11.7 years). Audubon Christmas Bird Count shows a similar rate of decline of 2.39% per year (Meehan et al. 2018), equating to 25% over three generations.

IUCN Red List: Piping Plover

Piping Plover Chicks by Jason Dain

The Good News

Despite the challenges of habitat loss, anthropogenic disturbances, predators, and climate change, Nova Scotia’s Recovery Plan for the Piping Plover deems that the recovery of the species is feasible, in part because “The primary threats to the species or its habitat (including threats outside Canada) can be avoided or mitigated.” The federal Recovery Strategy also deems that recovery of the species is feasible. 

And there is evidence that concerted conservation efforts can aid the piping plover population.

Despite continued declines in Atlantic Canada, the population has grown “along the U.S. Atlantic coast, likely thanks to intensive management of this species (placing protective barriers to safeguard nests, public education programs, predator management, and enforcement of off-road vehicle legislation).” 

It’s reasonable to expect that we could achieve similar success in Atlantic Canada.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List has deemed that the global population of piping plovers is actually increasing.

[T]here are hints that the species has been stable or even locally increasing as a result of conservation management over the last two decades (Elliott-Smith and Haig 2020). The overall population trend is therefore tentatively thought to be increasing. Albeit, it seems that the population increase is largely a result of intensive conservation action and thus it is likely that positive trends could reverse again, if conservation action were to stop.

IUCN Red List: Piping Plover

The Importance of habitat preservation
NatureServe “Charadrius melodus melodus”

Already, “many traditional breeding beaches have been lost due to natural and human-induced changes,” explains Birds Canada. Climate change will exacerbate this loss.

Audubon projects, “sea level rise is likely to become a critical issue for this coastal-dependent species in both summer and winter seasons.” By 2080, this “climate endangered” species will be limited to “only 38 percent of its original summer range.”

In light of this & other challenges, it’s more important than ever that Nova Scotia preserves piping plover habitat. We can help the species by designating (formally protecting) known breeding areas in our province.

How Can Individuals Help the Piping Plover?

“Studies show that fewer young are raised on beaches that are popular for recreation than on less-disturbed beaches,” explains Hinterland’s Who’s Who. “In fact, a heavily used beach may be abandoned by nesting birds.” It’s important that individuals respect piping plover habitat and follow all posted signs, such as keeping dogs on leash and vehicles off the beach.

Piping plovers evolved to be extremely well camouflaged, but this can make them vulnerable to anthropogenic disturbances. At the beach, stay on wet sand to avoid inadvertently disturbing piping plover nests.

For more information on how you can personally help piping plovers, click here

Photos by Nova Scotian photographer Jason Dain. Please click to enlarge.

Sources for Further Information

Piping Plovers & Beach Habitat in Nova Scotia by Bird Studies Canada

Recovery Plan for Piping Plover (Charadrius Melodus Melodus) in Nova Scotia

Recovery Strategy for the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus melodus) in Canada 

Species at Risk Registry: Piping Plover melodus subspecies

IUCN Red List: Piping Plover

NatureServe Charadrius Melodus Melodus (Piping Plover)

Provincial Landscape Viewer (Has Option to Show Significant Habitat Layer)

Audubon Climate Report: Piping Plover

 

 

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