The article originally appeared on UNC-TV.
RICH INLET — Think about the last time you took a trip. I’m not talking about a quick trip to the grocery store or a Saturday morning that is spent running a few errands. Think about the time in the car on the way to Grandma’s house for the holidays or on a family vacation.
On those long trips it is important to take a travel break. You need to take a break to stretch your legs, hit the bathroom and gas up the car. Think about that as you read about the travels of the piping plover.
“In order to fuel that flight, they have to feed like mad,” says Lindsay Addison, a coastal biologist with Audubon North Carolina. She’s wading in waste deep water to guide our boat along the shore of Rich Inlet near Wilmington. We’re trying to catch a glimpse of the piping plover, a tiny shorebird that likes to feed on tiny sand worms, insects, and small marine creatures along the sandy shore.
“There’s a couple of birds on the beach,” exclaims Addison, pointing to several tiny birds eating, then walking and stopping, then eating again. The cycle is repeated constantly as the birds make their way along the shore.
“In the spring and summer months we’ll have a few piping plovers nesting here, but then things really get going in the fall and winter when we have our migrating birds show up,” says Addison. “The plovers nest as far north as Canada, but as they come south we have flocks constantly coming through to stop for a few days, rest, refuel, fatten up and then continue their journey south.”
Resting and refueling on the journey are critical. People need to do it and so do piping plovers because the tiny bird travels thousands of miles in one year. It flies from the Bahamas to Canada in the spring to nest. It then retraces the journey to winter in the Bahamas in the fall. Since the North Carolina coast features the sandy habitat the birds love, the state is a preferred rest stop.
Some piping plovers live in North Carolina all year, primarily along the coast in the Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores. The state is at the far end of the bird’s winter and summer ranges. But most piping plovers see North Carolina as an exit on the Atlantic Flyway.
“The reason these birds like inlets is because they provide good foraging habitat and good roosting habitat all in one relatively small area,” explains Addison, as she climbs back into the boat. “If you’re a little bird that has to fly 3,000 miles from point A to point B, you don’t want to have to waste a lot of energy flying back and forth to feed and seek shelter. All those important habitats are close by in Rich Inlet and the other inlets along the coast.”
We know so much about piping plovers because biologists have banded the birds in their wintering grounds in the Bahamas. The colors on the band are unique to each bird. So birds first banded in the Bahamas can then be tracked at every stop along their journey. That’s important because there are only about 8,000 piping plovers left in the world. The Atlantic Coast population, which is seen in North Carolina, makes up about half of that number.
"Piping plovers are a federally threatened species,” explains Walker Golder, Deputy Director of Audubon North Carolina. Golder was part of the team that caught and tagged the birds in the Bahamas. “Piping plovers are a species that sort of hangs on along the coast, depending on beaches and inlets. The problem is that the bird depends on the same places that people like, and the habitats the birds depend on are disappearing.”
In the past, biologists and conservation specialists both believed the best way to save a threatened or endangered species, like the piping plover, was to focus on breeding. The reasoning went like this: if breeding areas were protected, and the species produced a lot of chicks, everything would be fine. The species would survive by sheer numbers as more creatures would survive than die.
But thanks to population modeling work with the piping plover and other threatened species, scientists now realize that the time spent away from the breeding area as well as the habitat quality they find in those areas is just as important as how many chicks are born in a breeding area. That’s why Audubon and other conservation organizations are working to protect areas all along the piping plover’s travels.
“We have to think of the bird’s full life cycle, which means having high quality habitat at stopover sites and at wintering habitats,” says Golder. “So protecting areas in the Bahamas is just as important as protecting breeding sites and stopover sites, and when you put all that together you have a comprehensive full life cycle protection plan.”
And as you watch the piping plover feeding on the shore, you wonder if the little bird is saying thanks.