Lea-Hutaff Island is one of the few places where Piping Plovers may be seen year-round. As the southernmost breeding area for Piping Plovers, it receives 2-5 nesting pairs every year.
As a stop-over site, it serves as a buffet for hungry shorebirds during migration. We know from sightings of banded birds that members of the Atlantic, Great Lakes, and Great Plains breeding populations have all stopped over on their journeys. Atlantic birds are mostly on their way to the Bahamas, as has recently been documented. Great Lakes birds winter in North Carolina south to Florida, and most Great Plains birds spend the cold months on the northern Gulf Coast, but a handful show up on the Atlantic coast. Regardless of where they are from, all migrating Piping Plovers--as well as other shorebirds--rely on barrier island and inlet systems to provide productive feeding habitat on their stopovers.
Finally, some Piping Plovers settle in at Lea-Hutaff Island for the winter. Audubon surveys have documented banded individuals returning for up to three years in a row, not only on the same island, but at the same end of the island. For example, one Great Lakes female (pictured below) has spent every winter since 2009 at the south end of Lea-Hutaff. She arrives in July or August after breeding in Michigan and remains until March.
Birdwatchers along the coast have the best chance of spotting a migrating Piping Plover in March, which is when most individuals depart from their wintering grounds and make their way north. If you are able to visit areas like south Topsail Island, Mason Inlet Waterbird Management Area, or Lea-Hutaff Island, take note of Piping Plover’s legs. If you see any small, colored bands, note the colors and where they are located on the leg.
Audubon staff can report the sighting to the appropriate banders and add to what we know about Piping Plover migration.
-- Lindsay Addison