Audubon's Ezra Thompson, a skilled Coastal Bird Monitoring Technician, works year-round in Florida's Panhandle surveying breeding and nonbreeding waterbirds primarily by boat on offshore islands. He spotted a very special bird on the beach one day and shared its story with us.
Piping Plovers spend their winters mostly along the Gulf of Mexico coastline, Florida's Atlantic Coast, and a number of Caribbean islands. These tiny, sand-colored birds are globally endangered or threatened throughout their breeding range. They live, rest, and eat in these more southerly locations until the frozen waters of their northern nesting grounds thaw again in the spring. Have you ever been walking on a northern beach and wondered where they go in the summer? Biologists often ask similar questions to better understand the conservation of a species. Piping plovers are migratory birds that move seasonally; if they are banded they can help answer some of these questions.
One Piping Plover has a unique story to share. When I first saw this individually banded Piping Plover, I was surveying along the shoreline at Eglin Air Force Base – Cape San Blas. I noticed a small plover’s repeated sprint-and-freeze foraging behavior apart from the more continuous movement of foraging sandpipers. Looking through my binoculars I immediately saw a blue flag identifying this Piping Plover. My heartbeat quickened and I took a quick series of photos with my camera. On the upper right leg, the blue flag displayed a three digit code: A97. Like one does after hitting a home run, I smiled as I walked around this special bird, continuing along my survey and wondering where it had traveled from to visit the Florida Panhandle.
What do we learn from banding birds? By giving some individual birds a unique set of color bands or coded flags those birds can be re-sighted by shorebird researchers and enthusiasts to help map where individuals migrate to/from, to determine longevity, to improve population estimates, and document nesting success of a specific individual. Banding, also known as "ringing" in Europe, has been used for many decades as a safe and cost effective way of uniquely identifying birds to learn valuable information that can be used for answering questions that will lead to effective conservation.
Looking into this bird’s background, I soon heard back from a biologist and learned that A97 hatched near Lexington, Nebraska in the summer of 2015, just a few months before being observed over 1,100 miles away on the Florida Gulf Coast. I was also excited to have a new young Piping Plover visit Cape San Blas, and looked forward to seeing if it would remain there for the winter. A97 did remain for the rest of the winter before migrating back north in the spring to nest again in Nebraska. Following an unsuccessful nesting attempt with another young Piping Plover – documented by shorebird technicians with USGS/Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP) – A97 returned for its second winter on Cape San Blas in the Florida Panhandle. Biologists call this "winter site fidelity" - a multi-year return to the same overwintering location.
While wintering along the Gulf Coast, Piping Plovers face many threats and disturbances including: raptors, off-leash pets, heavy beach recreational use, and beach driving. Understanding the critical importance of undisturbed coastal areas and the vulnerabilities of Piping Plovers is important to ensure special birds liked A97 can survive each winter and migrate back to Nebraska where it will successfully raise chicks that may someday visit a beach near you!
If you spot a banded Piping Plover, please report date and location of your sighting - with photo if possible - to firstname.lastname@example.org