Many birders are familiar with this small migratory shorebird and some know of its endangered status. Not to mention the fact that they’re adorable. But there’s a lot more about Piping Plovers (PIPL) than their good looks.
There are two subspecies in three distinct populations of Piping Plovers. The Atlantic coast has its own subspecies (Charadrius melodus melodus) while the internal populations are another subspecies (Charadrius melodus circumcinctus) split between the Great Plains and Great Lakes regions. Luckily there is enough distance between the populations that telling these two subspecies apart visually isn’t difficult. However, for record’s sake, the Great Plains and Great Lakes population tends to be a darker shade of gray than the Atlantic population. The inland males also tend to have a more complete and thicker black neckband compared to the ocean beach PIPLs.
The Great Lakes PIPL population is independently endangered and has the least amount of suitable breeding habitat of the three populations. Thus, lack of habitat, which also leads to increased disturbances and predation, makes breeding difficult. At one point these birds bred across the Great Lakes. Today the majority of the pairs are nesting in Michigan with a few others in Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada.
There are on average only ~60 pairs per year, for about the past decade. This year there are currently 70 pairs. We actually are currently watching two Plovers and hoping they nest so we can match the record for one season of 71 breeding pairs.
The University of Minnesota, along with partners such as US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, National Park Service, various state parks, citizen scientists, and others have extensively studied the Great Lakes population for over two decades. And now I’m a part of this research effort too as the UMN grad student on this project.
It is estimated that 96-98% of the Great Lakes population is banded and therefore able to be extensively monitored every year. If you’re in the Great Lakes area a banded Piping Plover is easy to identify because orange is the unique color band identifier for this population. The Great Plains population is also easy to identify because they exclusively use lime colored bands. The Atlantic population band varies in color. (This is primarily due to the larger geographic area and more banders working with those birds).
Every banded chick in the Great Lakes gets a regular orange plastic band on one leg and an official metal band on the other, both above the joint. The chick will have an additional color band(s) (and this can be any color) below the joint, which will be the same combination as their brothers/sisters. This is considered a brood combination. The reason the chicks from the same brood get the same combination is to make it easier to study such things as parental success, fledging rates, and return success. There are other unique identifiers for individual chicks. The orange bands have one of four different color dots and the color band below usually has a three-digit number on it as well.
Every breeding adult in the Great Lakes gets their orange band replaced with a plain (not alphanumeric) orange flag and a new, unique only to them color combo. Thus, each adult that contributes to the population gets marked in a way that acts as their name. Once an adult bird has their unique combo they are not recaptured again. Only observations are made on these birds in subsequent years. This is to reduce disturbances and interactions with the birds as much as possible.
Side note comment:
Other blogs and social media posts have touched on the topic of whether banding is ethical. Posts have even been written about bands in bird photography. It is because of banding that we can keep such detailed records and monitor each individual PIPL in this endangered population. While it would obviously be preferred to not interfere with birds of any species, we as a society have learned so much because of the data we can collect when we have a bird in the hand. We have also reached a point where humans have influenced our planet to such an extent that marking every bird in an endangered population is needed for wildlife management and conservation efforts.