This week, I’ll be talking about a cool little bird known as a piping plover. It is special for several reasons, but one in particular is because it is a threatened species. Piping plovers nest in three areas in the United States and Canada. The largest population nests in the Great Plains from western Oklahoma to central Canada, followed by the second largest along the northern Atlantic coast and the smallest population around the Great Lakes with about three dozen nesting pairs.
These birds are unique and very popular with researchers who are trying to save them from extinction. Habitat loss due to recreation and shoreline development is a contributing factor to the birds’ decline, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the photo above, which I took on Galveston Island a little over a week ago, the yellow flag on the right leg of this piping plover indicates it is from the Great Plains population — and most certainly breeds at Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota.
The birds can be seen in Oklahoma, especially during migration. The large majority of piping plovers winter along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida. Some also winter along the southern Atlantic coast and in the Bahamas. Piping plovers leave their breeding range from late July through October.
They will patrol the sandy shores of lakes, rivers and oceans in search of food. Prey consists of crustaceans, worms and insects. Federal officials are using research, recovery plans, habitat protection and management and educating the public to combat population decline of piping plovers.
These little birds — only about 6 inches long — are fun to watch. When they run, they look like eggs with legs as they scurry about at a fast pace. Walking along the beaches of the Gulf Coast from autumn through spring, one is sure to encounter this little round bird running the beaches along with sandpipers, dunlins, willets and other plovers.
The bird in the photo above left is nearly in its winter plumage. The brownish color about its back and face will get slightly lighter. In summer, the piping plover is darker and has a black stripe across its face from eye to eye and a black breast band. Also during breeding season, its bill is orange near the base and its legs are more orange than in winter.
Piping plovers nest at sandy areas and beaches with little vegetation. The mother will lay three to four eggs and both mom and dad incubate the eggs and take turns feeding the young until they can fly. The piping plover can easily be confused with the very similar semipalmated plover, but the semipalmated plover is slightly larger, slightly darker, has more yellow legs than orange and has a more pronounced breast band in summer and winter.
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