Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Leucistic Piping Plover

The following engrossing and astounding story of a leucistic Piping Plover comes as quite a surprise to all of us. The information and photos below are from Jim Panaccione, a Biological Science Technician at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. The Parker River NWR is in Newburyport, Massachusetts, which is where the bird took up residence this season. Jim sent this information to Kristina Vagos, Wildlife Biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, and she sent it on to me, AAfCW Coordinator Scott Kruitbosch, knowing that all of us and all of you would be fascinated by it.

Just look at this bird!


And the most shocking, with its mate!

Leucism is essentially a lessened pigmentation of the feathers, as normal colors still occur over a sizable portion of the body. It is not the same condition as albinism, a mutation that prevents melanin from being produced at all, and a case where the bird above would be completely white. Leucism is rare in birds, and we cannot remember ever seeing a Piping Plover with the condition. A little Google work led me to this bird from North Carolina in 2009 that appears different from the Massachusetts individual.

If you have been a birder for decades, it is likely you have seen or will see a leucistic bird at some point, especially if you have feeders in your yard and are able to watch thousands of individuals come and go each year. Something like a leucistic Northern Cardinal or an American Tree Sparrow would be a more expected sight, but we cannot definitively say it would occur more often in these species than in Piping Plovers. We simply have a much greater chance of seeing it because we are exposed to far more individuals of those species on a constant basis as opposed to, at most, tens of Piping Plovers in a given year if we are watching them across the entire state of Connecticut.

Jim provided us with some information on this individual. It is a female, as you may have been able to tell from examining her mate. He says:

She had a four egg clutch that hatched before the June 3rd storm and all the chicks survived the storm. They must have taken the chick WAY behind the dunes, because our beach was swallowed up by the storm surge including some areas where the tide over-topped the dunes and a few blow-outs. In the end they were able to fledge 2 chicks.

We have noted on several occasions how adept Piping Plovers are in particular at moving their young around the beach when it is experiencing dangerous weather conditions. The storm on June 3 that Jim is referring to was a low pressure system that came up the Ohio Valley on June 1. It moved across into the Mid-Atlantic region and spawned a great deal of rain for our area, weakening and transferring its energy to a small coastal low off the Gulf of Maine by June 3 that lingered for a couple of days. In Connecticut, we had widespread rainfall surpassing two inches in some areas on June 2. It also coincided with some of the highest tide cycles of the season, and the extra water did not help matters. You can see this blog post from that week discussing some of the tidal issues we were afraid of experiencing.

Fortunately for us, the tidal damage we sustained this season spared many early-season nesting birds, especially Piping Plover pairs. With that said, we did lose over ten American Oystercatcher nests, several Piping Plover nests and even more chicks, hundreds of Common Tern nests, and dozens of Least Tern nests, at minimum. This is an unpleasant fact of life for these coastal birds, and something only exacerbated by climate change and rising sea levels. Jim's girl was a great example of what can happen to an otherwise successful and fit parent, but it appears she did well managing her young ones during the storm. We would have to guess that she probably lost those two chicks to predation at a later date.

The most intriguing take away from this bird is the fact that her appearance did not seem to hinder her in any way when it came to finding a mate despite the fact that we know (in some species) and surmise (in many others) that plumage features help to drive breeding selection. Would it have been another story had the leucistic bird been a male instead, with females perhaps not wanting to choose to mate with him? We can only guess, for now. It goes without saying we should all keep an eye out for this unique bird. She has probably gone long past Connecticut by now on her journey south, but in a little more than six months she will hopefully be nearing our region once again.

Our thanks to Jim for the photos and story as well as Kris for passing it along!

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

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