Coastal Conservation

Spotted! A New Jersey Piping Plover Spending the Winter at Outback Key

by Kara Cook, Rooftop Biologist for Audubon Florida.

Standing at the edge of the surf, I peered through binoculars to scan the sand of Outback Key for familiar sea and shorebird shapes. A peep came into view - focusing carefully, I noted it was a Piping Plover, then took careful photos of its brightly colored legbands. Each color combination is unique, and I looked forward to discovering from where this tiny shorebird had arrived.

During the non-breeding season, I survey the beaches in South Pinellas County for shorebirds and seabirds, with weekly trips to Outback Key. The barrier island is an important site for wintering plover species, including Piping Plover, Snowy Plover, and Wilson’s Plover. We have spotted banded Piping Plovers on Outback Key that came all the way from breeding grounds in Nebraska, the Great Lakes, Ontario, and New Jersey! Some individuals come back year after year, but we also occasionally get fledges from this year’s breeding season.

I didn't recognize this particular banded plover. After using my photos to confirm the color bands, I emailed Christina Davis with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. She was happy to report that it was a fledge from this year named Stumpy, banded in July as a chick at the Barnegat Light Restoration Area in New Jersey along with three siblings.

Interestingly, Piping Plovers at this site nest in close proximity to each other, and sometimes chicks around the same age will get “stolen” from another pair. The "stealing" actually happened this year and Stumpy gained an adopted sibling - its parents successfully fledged five chicks! Bird bands help researchers track these unique family dynamics. 

It’s wonderful to hear the success stories from Northeastern breeding grounds and to see the fledged chicks from the summer season spending the coldest months on our beaches here in Florida.

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