Piping Plover: Seashore Saturday

Hello friends! It’s the most hectic time of the year for me: back to school (this year as a teacher and a student). Everyone is one the move again, and birds are no exception: fall migration is underway. There are so many exciting things going on this time of year. Autumn begins on Thursday the 22nd, and right now we are in the midst of warbler and shorebird migration. Yesterday was Plover Appreciation Day, which is a day to raise awareness of ground-nesting plovers around the world and how we can help them. Today there are two personal special things happening: the last Seashore Saturday of the season and my birthday! I decided to combine those last two events by choosing one of my favorite shorebirds to write about: the Piping Plover. Starting next week I’m going to kick off Woodpecker Wednesday for the autumn season. I also have a birding trip post coming soon and a book review, so stay tuned!

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

Description:

Piping Plovers are small, stocky plovers. They have pale upperparts, white underparts, and short bills. Their legs are orange-yellow and they have black feathers on the tips of their tails and sides of their wings. During breeding season they have a black, narrow breast band while juvenile and non-breeding birds have a pale band. Their bills are orange with a black tip during breeding.

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Piping Plover on Long Beach Island, NJ (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

Breeding: northern Atlantic Coast, parts of the northern plains (mid-Canada, the Dakotas, Nebraska)/Great Lakes region (although population have dramatically declined there.) Winter: southern Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast

Habitat:

Sandy beaches, sand bars, tidal flats, alkali lakes

Diet:

Insects, crustaceans, marine worms, invertebrates. Piping Plovers are ground foragers who run a few steps then stop to look for food and peck around.

Breeding/Nesting:

Piping Plovers are a threatened and priority bird, partly due to the fact that they breed on the ground. Piping Plovers lay their eggs in a scrape in the sand, usually some distance from water. The problem is that they blend in so well with their surroundings that their nests can easily be destroyed by beachgoers who are not aware the plover eggs are there. Because of this, many Atlantic Coast beaches have blocked off areas were Piping Plovers and other threatened shorebirds, such as terns and Black Skimmers, nest.

Piping Plovers lay on average about 4 eggs. The eggs are incubated by both sexes for 26-28 days. The young are downy and leave the nest a few hours after nesting to look for food. The parents brood the young, but the female usually deserts the chicks after a few days and the male cares for them. The chicks fledge between 21-35 days after hatching. Not much is known about the Piping Plover’s development.

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Piping Plover chick on Long Beach Island (Image by David Horowitz)

Sounds:

peep, peeto! or a series of pehp, pehp, pehp when agitated.

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes Piping Plovers are seen in small groups, but they are usually solitary and don’t mix with other shorebirds often.
  • Piping Plovers are native to the United States and just barely disperse into Mexico. They also winter in The Bahamas.
  • Male Piping Plovers have thicker breast bands during breeding season, which is one of the only ways to tell the sexes apart.
  • During breeding, males display elaborate courtship ceremonies, such as flights that feature dives and stone tossing. Males create multiple scrapes in the ground for nest sites and female will choose the site she likes best to camouflage it.
  • Like, Semipalmated Plovers and Killdeer, Piping Plovers use the “broken-wing display” to distracted predators from their young.

Please be mindful of your surroundings while visiting beaches. Make sure to obey any signs you see, especially if they are telling you to avoid a shorebird nesting area. Piping Plover populations are under 10,000, so it’s important that we are taking proper precautions to protect their habit.

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Piping Plover parent and chick (Image by Johann Schmacher via audubon.org)
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Semipalmated Plover: Seashore Sunday

I woke up this morning (Sunday) and realized that I didn’t post a Seashore Saturday! I lost track of what day it was. So here’s another Seashore Sunday. This week’s bird is one that I’ve been seeing a lot of lately: the Semipalmated Plover. I saw this bird on my recent trips to Cape May and Edwin B. Forsythe NWR.

Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)

Description:

Semipalmated Plovers are about 7.25 in length. They have brown upperparts, white underparts, and orange legs. They have a distinctive dark breast band, as well as dark cheeks. The base of their bill is orange while the bill tip is black. They are smaller than the similar-looking Killdeer, who have a double breast band.

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Adult Semipalmated Plover (Image by Mike Lentz via allaboutbirds.org)

Range:

Breeding (Summer): Alaska and Northern Canada; Migration: Canada, throughout United States; Winter: Pacific, Atlantic, and gulf Coasts, Caribbean Islands, and coast of South America

Habitat:

Shores, sandy beaches, mudflats, lake shores. Prefers open habitats and avoids flats with too much marsh vegetation

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In flight (Image by Mike Danzenbaker via avesphoto.com)

Diet:

Mainly insects, but also marine worms and crustaceans. Semipalmated Plovers forage by running in short spurts and pecking the ground when they spot food. Sometimes they shuffle their foot in the ground to startle prey into moving.

Breeding and Nesting:

To attract a mate in the air, males will flying in circles using slow wingbeats over their territories while calling. Another technique is to fluff his feathers, spread his tail and wings, crouch down, and call excitedly. Semipalmated Plovers build the nest on bare gravel or sand and line it with natural materials.

Both sexes incubate usually 4 eggs for 23-25 days. The downy young leave the nest shortly after hatching and feed themselves while being watched by the parents. Young plovers’ first flight occur between 23-31 days after hatching.

Sounds:

Two-note whistle: tu-wee!

Fun Facts:

  • “Semipalmated” refers to the fact that they have partial webbing in between their toes.
  • Semipalmated Plovers are the most numerous of the small plovers.
  • Like the Killdeer, Semipalmated Plovers use the “broken-wing display”, where they pretend to be injured to lure predators away from their chicks.

Killdeer: Migration Monday!

Hello everyone! Welcome to Migration Monday! In this new feature we will learn about birds who are migrating due to the spring season. Our first bird is the Killdeer.

Yesterday Dave and I were driving to the grocery store and were making a u-turn to get on a major highway. As I was approaching a stop sign I saw a little bird in the grass. I said,”Oh look, it’s a…killdeer??” It’s a killdeer! What is he doing here?”. He was running along the side of the highway and crossed the street (don’t worry, he made it across the street safely!). I was expecting maybe a robin, or cowbird, or sparrow, but not a Killdeer. I thought he was perfect for my first Migration Monday, since Killdeer are one of the earliest migrants.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)

Description:

Killdeer are medium-sized shorebirds (about 10 1/2″ inches tall). Both males and females have similar features. These lanky birds have large round heads with short bills and long legs/tails/wings. In flight, you can see the bright orange feathers underneath their tails. Their eyes are also large and have a red orbital ring that is visible in close range. Killdeer have brown upperparts, white underparts, and a black double-banded breast. The double-banded breast helps distinguish them from the similar-looking Wilson’s Plovers and Semipalmated Plovers who only have one breast band. Adult Killdeer are also larger and slimmer than other plovers. Juveniles only have one breast band, so they are usually confused with the Semipalmated or Wilson’s. Killdeer juveniles are downy, have pinkish legs, and all black bills.

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An adult Killdeer (Image by Claude Nadeau/VIREO via audubon.org)
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A juvenile Killdeer: note his single breast band (Image by Peter Massas via Wikipedia)

Range:

Killdeer may be either medium-distant migrants or residents depending on region. The northern population of Killdeer may migrate from Canada and the Northern United States to Central America and Peru for the winter. The population in the Southern United States and the Pacific Coast tend to be residents.

Habitat:

Although they are considered shorebirds, you are more likely to see them away from water. Killdeer like open grasslands such as pastures, plowed fields, and lawns. You can find them at water’s edge as well. You may also spot them at parking lots, mudflats, coastal estuaries, airports, golf courses, or trying to nest on gravel rooftops.

Food:

Mostly insects such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, beetles, earthworms, snails,and  larvae. Will also eat seeds. They forage on the ground.

Breeding/Nesting:

Males will fly above the nesting territory calling out to females. Killdeer will do a “nest-scraping” ritual, where the male will get close to the ground and scrape out a hole with his feet and then the female will take over. Mating usual occurs shortly after. They will add stones, sticks and other items (even human trash) to line their nests. Females lay between 3-5 eggs (usually 4) and incubate them for 24-28 days. Chicks are precocial, meaning they leave the nest soon after hatching and are tended to by their parents but can feed themselves. They will usually have their first flight at around 25-days-old. In warmer climates, Killdeer may have 2 broods (families) per season.

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A Killdeer family (Image by Lyn Topinka via northwestbirding.com)

Sounds:

A loud and shrill kill-deer, kill-dee, dee-dee-dee.  They are considered sentinel birds, meaning they are acutely aware of predators. Since they live in open grasslands they can spot predators from a far distance and make a loud alarm call to warn other Killdeer and nearby animals.

Fun Facts:

  • And the Academy Award for Best Actor goes to….the Killdeer! Killdeer are masters of the “broken-wing” display. The adult Killdeer will lure a predator away from the nest by pretending its wing is broken and flailing around while giving a distress call. Once the predator is far enough away from the nest the Killdeer will instantly “heal” and fly away.
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Broken Wing Display (Image by Phil Gilston via birdnote.org)
  • When a Killdeer spots an intruder it will bob its head up and down.
  • Nicknames include “The Noisy Plover” or “The Chattering Plover”
  • Killdeer migrate earlier than other birds, usual returning to their northern regions in February or March