Piping Plovers are Here!!!

“They’re baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!” said a July 16 email from Melissa Chaplin, Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They” are the Piping Plovers, returning from northern breeding areas. Plovers breed April to June in three US and Canada population areas – Great Lakes, Atlantic coast, and Northern Great Plains. In July they migrate to southern Atlantic and Texas coasts, and the Bahamas, to “winter” until the following spring.

Atlantic (green flag, left photo above) and Great Plains Piping Plovers are Federally Threatened. Great Lakes plovers (orange flag, right photo above) are Federally Endangered. The Great Lakes were once home to 800 pairs of Piping Plovers. Today, less than 70 nesting pairs remain, due to nest disruption by development, predators, people, dogs, and weather.

The Piping Plover wintering season now begins at Seabrook Island! And with their arrival, comes our responsibility to protect them so they can remain healthy and strong for next spring’s return north to breed.

Please make a difference when you’re on North Beach by following these simple steps:

  1. Keep away from birds. When you see a flock give them space.
  2. Don’t force the birds to fly. If birds are calling loudly or taking flight – step back
    immediately.
  3. Follow Seabrook’s beach rules for dogs. Shorebirds will be anywhere on the beach including the dogs off leash zone. Please don’t have your dog chase any birds! Our shorebirds’ survival is not a game.
  4. Be a good steward. Learn about our shorebirds and their needs and share the word. Shorebirds are one of the many natural treasures of Seabrook for us to understand, enjoy, and most importantly protect.

-Submitted by SIB

(Image credit: Ed Konrad)

In addition to providing habitat for Piping Plovers that pass through during fall and spring migration, South Carolina hosts a number of Piping that remain here to winter. To better understand the challenges they face, and our responsibility to protect them, a view of their full year cycle is helpful.

In North Beach dogs off-leash area, April 2019

In April, Piping Plovers leave their wintering grounds, and head to the northern breeding areas. After mating, they typically lay a clutch of four eggs. The nest is a small scrape on the beach, usually in an area with small stones that camouflage the eggs. Both parents participate in sitting on the eggs. Chicks hatch in June and into July. During the first weeks after hatching, chicks are unable to maintain their own body temperature. They spend much time tucked in under their parents’ wings staying warm. They can run about and feed themselves within hours of hatching. It takes 3-4 weeks for them to be able to fly.

On a recent July trip across the country, Aija and I stopped at Whitefish Point in the Michigan Upper Peninsula. We found three volunteers watching over a nest of Piping Plovers and learned that day was the possible hatch date. The nest was in stones on the beach, covered with a wire cage to protect it (photos above). This year there was only one nesting pair at Whitefish, as opposed to multiple pairs in previous years.

The volunteers were concerned that the male had not been seen for over 3 hours, which was unusual. As we watched, the female (photo below) would get up from the nest to chase a Killdeer and Semipalmated Plovers, leaving her nest exposed. Suddenly a volunteer saw a crack in one of the eggs! We all watched closely with the scope and one chick hatched! (photos below) We left the beach with the thrill of witnessing a hatch, but with worry that without the male, the female would not be able to keep the chicks warm and sustain her brood.


Later we learned from Alice Van Zoeren, researcher with the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team, two of the four eggs hatched successfully. Thankfully, the male returned. When the chicks were banded, both adults were still there, and the two chicks were doing well.

Another interesting story on the huge challenges Piping Plovers face in their breeding grounds was on the Chicago shores of Lake Michigan this spring. For the first time since 1955, Piping Plovers in Chicago have hatched chicks. The adult plovers arrived at Montrose Point, one of the city’s best birding locations, in early June. Lake Michigan’s rising waters took the pairs’ first three eggs. But on a second try, there were three new Piping Plovers roaming the shores of Lake Michigan! This story became even more amazing when organizers of a concert that would have attracted 20,000 people to the beach was canceled to protect the chicks!

So, for three months of the year dedicated biologists, researchers, and volunteers work incredibly hard, despite all the many risks the birds face, to ensure Piping Plovers have a chance to successfully breed. Then they do all they can to help the chicks grow and get strong to start the next part of the life story – heading south to winter. From here the Piping Plover protection responsibility shifts to us and the southern beaches for the next 9 months.

In mid-July, the plovers head south to their wintering grounds, where they remain until the following spring. Last week Aija and I spotted five Piping Plovers on North Beach. Three had orange flags, all endangered from the Great Lakes population (photos below).

On their winter territories, Piping Plovers follow a predictable routine. As tides ebb or recede, plovers are on exposed tidal flats or sandy shores to feed on tiny crustaceans and marine worms. They typically spend most daylight hours foraging along the shore, and then at high tide retire to high beach areas to rest (photos below on North Beach). In March and April, just prior to their return north, Piping Plovers molt feathers on their heads and breasts, regaining their forehead and neck bands. The base of the bill changes to orange. Then the cycle begins again!

The Piping Plover wintering season now begins at Seabrook Island! And with their arrival, comes our responsibility to protect them so they can remain healthy and strong for next spring’s return north to breed.

Please make a difference when you’re on North Beach by following these simple steps:

  1. Keep away from birds. When you see a flock give them space.
  2. Don’t force the birds to fly. If birds are calling loudly or taking flight – step back
    immediately.
  3. Follow Seabrook’s beach rules for dogs. Shorebirds will be anywhere on the beach including the dogs off leash zone. Please don’t have your dog chase any birds! Our shorebirds’ survival is not a game.
  4. Be a good steward. Learn about our shorebirds and their needs and share the word. Shorebirds are one of the many natural treasures of Seabrook for us to understand, enjoy, and most importantly protect.

Information from Great Lakes Piping Plover website: https://www.greatlakespipingplover.org/

-Submitted by SIB

(Image credit: Ed Konrad)

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