Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The 2016 International Piping Plover Census

The 2016 International Piping Plover Census

Article and photos by
Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe (Audubon Alliance) and Amanda Pachomski (Audubon New York)

In CT, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began monitoring Piping Plovers in 1986 when the species first received protection under the Endangered Species Act.  The CT DEEP Wildlife Division added their expertise with the passing of the Connecticut Endangered Species Act in 1989. The Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds joined the USFWS and the Wildlife Division in 2012.  With the help of an amazing group of volunteers, these organizations have been stewarding Piping Plovers and other beach-nesting birds along the CT shoreline for nearly 30 years.   Working together, staff, field technicians, and volunteers exclose nests, protecting them from predators; put up string fencing to reduce disturbance  in nesting areas; and engage beachgoers and municipalities by providing information about beach-nesting species, the threats they face, and how to help.   Through these efforts, the number of pairs of Piping Plover nesting in the state has slowly increased.

Protecting Piping Plover on their nesting grounds is very important to species recovery, but we also need to think about the species and the habitat it uses during migration and over the winter.  Until very recently little was known about the locations used by Piping Plover in winter.  The 2006 discovery of 400 Piping Plovers in the Bahamas by the National Audubon Society and the Bahamas National Trust triggered a closer look at the nation’s 700 islands and roughly 2,000 cays.  During the 2011 census, researchers found over 1,000 Piping Plovers--perhaps 20% of the entire Atlantic Coast population--concentrated in one small cluster of Bahamian islands--Andros Island, the Joulter Cays (now a globally Important Bird Area), and the Berry Islands. The census filled in a huge gap in our understanding of these engaging and imperiled birds.

This winter, with support from the International Alliances Program, National Audubon Society staff from along the Atlantic Flyway, including Audubon Alliance staff member, Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe, pitched in to help with the 2016 International Piping Plover Census.  From Jan 18th – Jan 23th, Corrie teamed up with Audubon New York’s, Amanda Pachomski, in surveying the cays at the east end of Grand Bahama Island.  The pair traveled by flat bottom skiffs and on foot, inventorying shorebirds and other waterbirds on sand bars, mudflats, and along the edges of mangrove islands.

Grand Bahama Island sits approximately 100 miles to the east of West Palm Beach, Florida.  At the east end of the Island, large cays stretch out to the southeast, with creeks flowing between them.  The shoreline along the western side of the cays includes stretches of sandy beaches and bars, vegetated flats, and limestone formations, while the eastern shoreline of the cays, with the exception of Rumer Flats, is mangroves. 

Western side of cays: 

Rumer Flats on the eastern side of the cays:

“Over the course of our four days of surveys of the East Grand Bahama Cays, we learned that Piping Plover and Wilson’s Plover can be found along the entire western side if you look closely enough.” Says Folsom-O’Keefe, “Some areas are used for foraging a low tide (Sweetings Cay Flats, Big Creek Inlet, Round Cay, and Redshank), while other areas are high tide roosting spots (Deep Water Cay shoreline, shoreline between Big Creek Inlet and Thrift Harbor).  At high tide, both Piping and Wilson’s Plover will use spots with just several meters of sandy beach.   Wilson’s seems willing to use sections of rocky shoreline as well.  All total, we detected between 17-18 Piping Plovers and 7 Wilson’s Plovers.”

Piping Plover and Sanderlings foraging at low tide at Sweetings Cay Sand Bar...

Wilson’s and Piping Plover roosting at high tide:

Locations were Piping and Wilson’s Plover were located: 

“We also were able to locate good numbers of both Short-billed Dowitcher (pictured) and Black-bellied Plovers.” reports Pachomski.  “These birds seem to forage in mixed flocks at low tide on vegetated flats on the western side and muddy flats on the east side of the cays.  We had an enormous flock of Short-billed Dowitchers at the East End Flats (450+) and flocks of ~200 Short-billed Dowitchers at the Brush Cay flats on the west side, and at Rumer Flats on the east side.”

All of Grand Bahama has an interesting tidal cycle.  When it is low tide on the south side of Grand Bahama (west side of cays), it is high tide on the north side of Grand Bahama (east side of cays).  Ellsworth Weir of the Bahamas National Trust noted this is thought to be because the sides are linked through under water caves.  “It is possible that birds of East Grand Bahama, take advantage of the tides and travel from one side of the cays to the other to forage on exposed mud and sand flats every 6 hours, versus sticking to one side and only foraging every 12 hours.  We suspect that the birds using Brush Cay and Rumer Flats may be the same birds, as the number of dowitchers and Black-bellied Plovers was very similar,” notes Folsom-O’Keefe. “All total, we feel that we observed 725-965 Short-billed Dowitchers and 144-184 Black-bellied Plovers.”

Folsom-O’Keefe and Pachomski found 11 different types of shorebird species and observed 6 different types of long-legged waders (this information will be submitted via eBird to the Caribbean Waterbird Census).   Semipalmated Plover, Dunlin, and Ruddy Turnstone (pictured) were often mixed in with Short-billed Dowitcher/Black-bellied Plover flocks.   

American Oystercatchers were typically found in pairs or small groups on rocky outcroppings (Black Rock), on vegetated flats (thrift Harbor and East End Flats), or sand bars (Red Shank).   Solitary Spotted Sandpiper were along rocky/sandy sections of the western shoreline.   The only place they had Western and Least Sandpiper (pictured) was Big Creek Inlet. Here the sandpipers huddled amongst rocky outcroppings in the middle off the flats.  

Great Blue Herons (38 birds) and Great Egrets (49 birds) were the most common long-legged waders.  They were found along the edges of the creeks, and also on mud flats adjacent to mangroves at low tide.   “We were also able to locate a flock of 9 Tri-colored Herons,” says Folsom-O’Keefe. “We had just a few Little Blue Herons (immature white phase, pictured), and one each of Reddish Egret and Snowy Egret.”

In addition to shorebirds and long-legged waders, Folsom-O’Keefe and Pachomski observed 13 types of songbirds, 4 gull species, Royal Terns, Brown Pelican (pictured), Double-crested Cormorant (nesting colony on Jacob Cay), Belted Kingfisher, Osprey, Red-tailed Hawk, Osprey, and a Tundra Swan.  

Bonaparte’s Gull:

“The East Grand Bahama Cays, now a National Park, are a beautiful spot.” Exclaims Pachomski, “Besides birds, we also saw many rays (sting rays and leopard rays), sharks (one was a lemon shark), barracuda, bonefish, several types of echinoderms, and a variety of other fish and marine life.”   Both Folsom-O’Keefe and Pachomski were thrilled to participate in the 2016 International Piping Plover Census and hope that the data they collected contributes to Piping Plover conservation efforts.   

Thursday, January 14, 2016

2015 Monitoring Results

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's Wildlife Division (CT DEEP) has now released the official nesting results for the state-threatened Least Tern and the federally-threatened Piping Plover from the 2015 monitoring season, and the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds (AAfCW) - Audubon Connecticut and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History - has completed our American Oystercatcher report. The first bit of fantastic news is that we hosted a new all-time high number of Piping Plover pairs in the state with 62 attempting to breed on Connecticut beaches in 2015. These pairs were able to fledge 112 chicks, making it the second-highest total ever following our own record of 116 from 2014. Thank you so much to all of our terrific monitors and volunteers for making this possible! Connecticut stands out from the crowd on the Atlantic Coast when it comes to Piping Plover productivity, achieving these sensational sums and easily surpassing management goals while reaching thousands and thousands of people each year in person and through our social media networks.

Piping Plover adult at Short Beach in Stratford, April 2015

It will be extremely difficult to repeat this level of success in 2016, and we are going to need your help to make it happen as the birds dodge threats including poor weather and high tides, unaware beachgoers, loose dogs and stray cats, natural predators from the land and air, fireworks displays, recreational activities, and more. Please sign up to be a volunteer monitor once again with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, CT DEEP and AAfCW in 2016, and if you are new to monitoring please email ctwaterbirds@gmail.com to join our ranks or find out what you can do to assist. We will likely have an even smaller staff to continue this work in 2016 making your efforts all the more valuable.

Piping Plover hatchling at Bridgeport’s Pleasure Beach in June 2015

Least Terns had a difficult year in Connecticut in 2015, continuing a disappointing recent trend for the unpredictable species with 241 pairs producing only 27 fledglings. Whether it is a foraging problem and a shortage of food for the young, continually changing coastal habitats and beaches that are now unacceptable quality or condition for nesting colonies, or a preference for other unusually productive locations elsewhere, we are still working to determine the limiting factors for Least Terns.

Least Tern copulation at Short Beach in Stratford, June 2015

Quite simply it may be that neighboring states currently offer better real estate and a richer menu. CT DEEP reports that June window counts for the species via locations from Maine to Virginia over the past decade indicate the species overall breeding pair population has held steady around 8,000 in these areas with minor deviations each year. While Connecticut has historically had two, three or more times the number of breeding pairs some years, remember that Least Terns are a very mobile colonial nesting species. Only a few groups deciding to nest on a certain sandy beach in a neighboring state can drastically alter our counts and success, but we hope our continual work to improve the quality of life in and around the Long Island Sound will help turn their numbers around.

Last but certainly not least, data from our Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds staff indicates that 2015 was a historically successful year for the American Oystercatcher in Connecticut! The population, consisting of 161 individuals that included 52 breeding pairs and 57 non-breeding individuals, was spread out over 31 different sites including barrier beaches and offshore islands. The breeding pairs successfully fledged an astronomical total of 64 chicks resulting in 1.23 (chicks/breeding pair) productivity.

Three American Oystercatchers flying in the fog off Stratford Point in May 2015

This is a dramatic increase in productivity from previous years, doubling or nearly tripling recent results. It is possible that more American Oystercatchers reached sexual maturity and attempted to breed last year. More significantly, it is our hypothesis that the species generally needs one to two years of nesting experience and attempts at raising chicks before they become adept enough to successfully fledge these young on a consistent basis. Our outreach initiatives have greatly benefited the birds with increased public awareness in critical nesting areas, enhanced protection with additional signage, fencing, and boater engagement, and volunteers monitoring breeding locations on the beach and on boats. In short, our slow and steady past success with American Oystercatchers has ascended to lofty levels as the species achieved this rapid gain and tremendous success due in part to our collective efforts.

Once again, please continue your work as a monitor or volunteer in 2016 or join us for your first season by emailing ctwaterbirds@gmail.com - thank you so much! Stay tuned for the date of the annual shorebird monitor training sessions coming up this March.

Scott Kruitbosch
AAfCW Volunteer Coordinator
RTPI Conservation & Outreach Coordinator

January Black-bellied Plover

This Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) is one of several that have been hanging out around the Stratford Point area all winter. The species can overwinter in Connecticut if the season is cooperative enough without ice, snow and frigid temperatures making foraging and surviving more difficult, and so far we have been treating them relatively well.

While it has been a chilly week we have only had a trace of snow, and the daytime temperatures still climb to above freezing. In only two months dozens of our volunteer monitors will be hitting the field for the beginning of the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, searching for newly-arrived Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers – crazy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

January Great Egret

This is your typical January Great Egret (Ardea alba) in New England…right…wait, what? As we plan and prepare for the fifth season of the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, part of our year-round effort is NOT finding these long-legged waders during the avian wintering season in Connecticut.

This bird was photographed on January 9, and the following day the temperature climbed to 60 with severe thunderstorms in the area before plunging back into this chilly week in the Northeast. These temperature roller coaster rides are not normal and not beneficial to our natural world.