- Size: 7 ¼” long, 19” wingspan.
- Color: Buff, sandy color with a black stripe on forehead and black collar band; orange legs and bill tipped in black.
- Habitat: Sandy beaches along the ocean (though there is also a population in the Great Lakes).
- When and where to observe: Breeding from March to September along the Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland to North Carolina; see them in the Rockaways in Queens, New Jersey and Long Island beaches like Jones Beach State Park.
It is difficult to imagine that this small, stocky, adorable shorebird nearly became extinct from game hunting. It is just as challenging to comprehend the reasons many people loathe this bird today, when others consider it a “charming little spirit of the sands” like naturalist C.H. Rogers in 1921. To understand these reasons, it is best to first understand the bird.
At 7 ¼” long with a 19” wingspan, the Piping Plover can be seen along area beaches such as the Arverne Piping Plover Nesting Area in the Rockaways, as well as the Long Island and New Jersey shorelines. Their buff, sandy coloring makes them a little difficult to spot, but watch for the dark breast band, black line across the forehead, an orange bill tipped in black, and orange legs. Males and females look similar, but female coloring is a little subtler.
Sometimes they are easier to see as they run short distances on the sand, then stop suddenly as if to think of their next move, and then run off again while feeding on marine worms, crustaceans, and insects found in the sand.
Piping Plovers begin to arrive in March to secure a breeding territory and find a mate. Males lead the courtship with calls of “peep” or “poeeep” while circling the female with spread wings and stamping feet. Not just limited to the land, males add fancy aerial moves by flying in circles or figure eights. Field guides indicate Piping Plovers make other calls in a soft whistle sounding like “peep,” “peeto,” or “peep-lo.”
Once formed, the mating pairs are monogamous. Nests are simple, inconspicuous (and extremely vulnerable) scrapes in sand above the tide line, often lined with stones and shells for camouflage. The 3-5 eggs are equally well concealed with buff coloring and brown or black flecks. After both parents incubate the eggs for 25-31 days, the chicks emerge.
While adults are considered charming to all people who enjoy birds, their offspring are even more so, often compared to cotton balls with legs! Chicks are precocial – meaning that they can feed themselves – and can fly in 20-32 days. Juvenile coloring resembles that of adult non-breeding plumage, which lacks the dark stripes on the head and collar and the orange bill.
Tending to be somewhat shy, non-confrontational birds, parents have a unique and rather valiant way of defending their chicks. If a predator comes too close, the chicks remain motionless while the parent flutters about on the sand as if they have a broken wing, hoping to lure the predator away from the nest.
As summer ends, so too does our visit from the Piping Plover as they depart by mid-September for their winter range in North Carolina south to Florida and into parts of the Caribbean.
Despite breeding in our area, it may be difficult to see Piping Plovers for reasons beyond their excellent camouflage. Though commercial hunting nearly caused their extinction in the 19th century, their populations began to increase once they received legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Today however, they are a species in trouble for a number of reasons.
As beaches become more developed for human uses, Piping Plovers (and many other species) lose habitat to feed, nest, and raise young. They also now face more predators than in years past. Raccoons are frequent nest raiders, and even house pets like dogs and cats kill plovers and their chicks.
With such inconspicuous nests in the sand, unsuspecting beach strollers — as well as vehicles — frequently crush both nests and chicks. To protect plovers, authorities install fencing and may close portions of beaches in the summer. Sadly, these actions do not sit well with some people who have come to loathe the bird, instead of enjoying the privilege of seeing an endangered species and taking pride in helping in its survival.
As if all this is not enough, even the weather has an impact on a Piping Plover’s life since nests can be destroyed by high tides brought in by storms.
But the situation is not hopeless! Many people, charmed by this little bird and its plight have taken action to protect their habitat by volunteering with local nature groups.
Most of all, Piping Plovers benefit when we simply appreciate them and work to help others do the same. During the lazy summer beach days, be sure to plan a beach stroll to visit the piping plovers, but keep in mind the conservation issues that affect their survival. When walking on the beach, keep close watch where you step and leave pets at home. Follow rules posted on fencing installed to protect nests, and keep a good distance away so the birds are not disturbed — and so your attention does not lure predators. And always leave the beach clean.
Let’s do whatever we can as New Yorkers to help along this endearing species by making it feel at home along our beaches!
- The Atlantic Coast Piping Plover by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, August 2007, accessed on 12/15/2008 at: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/pipingplover/pdf/plover.pdf.
- All About Birds: Piping Plover by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, accessed on 1/9/2-12 at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Piping_Plover/id/ac
- The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, published 1988 by Simon and Schuster.
- Local Area Hot Spots: Arverne Piping Plover Nesting Area by the Brooklyn Bird Club, accessed on 12/15/2008 at: http://www.brooklynbirdclub.org/arverne.htm.
- Piping Plover Project Review Fact Sheet by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, May 2007, accessed on 12/15/2008 at: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/nyfo/es/PipingPloverFactSheet07.pdf.
- The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley, published 2000 by Chanticleer Press.
- The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior edited by Chris Elphick, John B. Dunning, Jr., and David Allen Sibley, published 2001 by Chanticleer Press.
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