Plovers tracked across the Pacific

Written by Planet Earth Online

Scientists have monitored Pacific Golden Plovers for the first time as they migrate thousands of kilometres nonstop from Hawaii to Alaska in spring and back again in autumn.

The team also found the birds fly much more directly to their destinations than expected, suggesting they’re even better navigators than previously assumed.

This kind of research is shedding unprecedented light on these hard-to-monitor creatures’ behaviour; for instance, follow-up work is providing the first clues that Japan may be an important stopover for plovers as they head from South Pacific islands beyond Hawaii to breeding grounds in Alaska and Siberia.

We thought they might use the lengthy Hawaiian archipelago as a guide – that they would fly south until they reached an island somewhere in the chain and then travel along the archipelago until they got to their final destination,‘ says Professor Wally Johnson, an ecologist at Montana State University and lead author of the paper, published in Wader Study Group Bulletin. ‘But it turns out that they take a far more direct route.

The researchers, based at Montana State University, Brigham Young University in Hawaii and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), used geolocators, or data loggers, made by BAS. These minuscule devices are attached to bird’s legs and work by measuring and recording light levels at regular intervals.

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Geolocator tracks of plovers migrating northward (yellow) in spring from Hawaii to Alaska, the reverse in fall (purple). The figure shows data from the 2009 portion of the study. Click to enlarge image. © Wally Johnson

The team equipped 24 birds with loggers in Hawaii at their wintering grounds. After about six months, when the plovers had flown to Alaska and back again, the scientists recaptured them, removed their loggers and downloaded the data they contained. Special software turned this into an accurate record of where the plovers had been that could be plotted on Google Earth.

As well as more traditional methods to catch plovers, like setting up mist nets in their territories, the team pioneered the use of the ‘Super Talon’ net gun.

This was originally designed as a law enforcement tool, but it turns out to be a great way to capture wild birds without harming them. The researchers even found they could take unwary plovers by surprise with an unusual tactic of drive-by net-gunning.

Plovers are ideal subjects for this kind of research because they return to the same wintering territories every year, so scientists know exactly where to go to find a particular individual. ‘They’re so strongly site-faithful that we can predict where they will be with almost 100 per cent accuracy,‘ explains Johnson. ‘If they’re alive, it’s almost certain they will come back to the same place.

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A geolocator-equipped male Pacific Golden-Plover in Hawaii, late April, a few days before migration to Alaska. © Wally Johnson

On their spring flight northwards, the birds averaged 63 kilometres per hour and covered around 4800 kilometres in about three days. They made the return trip in around four days.

Plovers are well-known as fast flyers, and in this study some birds reached incredible speeds, presumably with the wind behind them – for example, the ground speeds of three individuals ranged from 167 to an exceptional 185 kilometres per hour.

Johnson and his colleagues are now working on follow-up research applying similar methods to plovers that travel from places further south in the Pacific, like the Marshall Islands. So far, their findings suggest that these birds (unlike plovers wintering in Hawaii) stop over in the uplands and rice fields of Japan to fatten up while en route to their breeding grounds in Alaska and Siberia- a migratory link that hasn’t previously been suspected.

Japan seems to be a major stopover for them,‘ Johnson says. ‘A lot of shorebirds stop in the Yellow Sea region between China and Korea, but very few golden plovers have been seen there. We knew they had to be going elsewhere, and now we think we know where.

The team also noted that extended periods of ‘noise’, in which the geolocator registers very little light, probably show periods when the birds are on their nests incubating and hence keeping the devices shaded. These noise patterns could potentially be used to estimate hatching success rates in various species that nest in remote areas.

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Snowy Plovers Breeding Adventures Online

Written by Clemens Küpper

Snowy Plovers Charadrius nivosus are small waders that breed at sandy beaches and coastal wetlands across the Americas. Over the last decades many coastal Snowy Plover populations have declined principally because human use of their breeding habitat has been intensified. Fortunately, conservation efforts have been stepped up to halt the decline of many North American populations. However, the conservation efforts that include beach closure for the public are often controversial and contested. 

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Male and Female Snowy Plover at Bahía de Ceuta, Mexico. Both sexes are very similar, although males have usually darker ornaments than females. The female in this picture wears a red colour ring. © Clemens Küpper

Most of the conservation efforts to save the Snowy Plover are right now concentrated to the coastal populations of the US. In contrast, in Latin America conservation and study of Snowy Plovers is still in its infancy and often lacking all ingredients except for motivation. In 2006 we have started a program to study and conserve Snowy Plovers at Bahía de Ceuta, a coastal wetland in Sinaloa Mexico. The entire Snowy Plover population in Mexico is estimated to be about 2,000 plovers and Bahía de Ceuta holds about 10% of this population. The beaches of Bahía de Ceuta are not only important for birds since the endangered Olive Ridley Turtle is also breeding at these beaches. However, the wetland and the beaches are continuously threatened by uncontrolled visitor disturbance during the breeding season, illegal deforestation, rubbish dumping and development of nearby beach properties. Over the last years hurricanes, severe weathers and the closure of the former salt works have altered the hydrology of the site resulting in strong fluctuations of breeding success of the ground nesting shorebirds.

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Female Snowy Plover incubating clutch. Male and female care together for the eggs, but soon after the hatching often one of the parents abandons the brood. © Clemens Küpper

The Snowy Plovers are not only valuable because they are threatened but they have also a peculiar breeding behaviour that can certainly compete with your favourite TV soap opera / telenovela. Over the years we have become witnesses of males and females deserting the family to pair up with their new lovers, family mixing, chick adoption, chicks starving to death, violent conflicts and much more. We even have seen Snowy Plovers temporally caring for tern chicks!

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3 freshly hatched Snowy Plover chicks. A few hours after hatching these fluffy cotton balls will run around and explore the world. © Clemens Küpper

To let you participate better with and the fate of the Ceuta Snowy Plovers we have set up online resources to learn more their fascinating life and struggle for survival. Our hope is that by generating more interest and understanding for the cause of Snowy Plovers we will be able to improve step-by- step the conditions at Bahía de Ceuta. Check out our website (www.chorlito.org) and get involved. During the breeding season you can follow us on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ceuta-Snowy-Plover-Project/195255797181809) and Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/chorlnev).

Emergency mission to save remarkable bird from extinction

Written by WWT

An international team of conservationists has flown out to the Russian Far East on an emergency mission to help save one of the world’s rarest birds from extinction. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a unique and remarkable bird, but its shocking drop in numbers indicates likely extinction within a decade if urgent action is not taken. 

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Spoon-billed Sandpiper chick on this meaningful image. © Christoph Zöckler

The conservation breeding team, led by staff from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Birds Russia, is working with colleagues from the RSPB, BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and Moscow Zoo to help save this species. 

Recent research suggests that the breeding population of Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) was between 120-200 pairs in 2009, with the species believed to be declining at approximately 26% per year, due to extremely low survival of juvenile birds. If this trend continues, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper could be extinct within a decade.

The team plans to establish a captive population which will be the source for reintroductions over the coming decades, once the threats to the birds and their habitats along their flyway have been sufficiently addressed.

Currently the team is in Russia waiting to locate and collect eggs from the breeding grounds. They will construct an incubation facility out on the tundra where they will hatch the chicks before transferring the fledged young via sea and air back to Moscow Zoo for quarantine. The chicks will then be transferred to a specially built conservation breeding unit at WWT’s headquarters in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire where staff will rear and breed the birds. 

The bird’s migratory flyway takes it 8,000 km along the East Asian-Australasian flyway each year from Russia to the Bay of Martaban, Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. On that journey and during winter they have been reported from Japan, North Korea, the Republic of Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. 

It is believed that the main reason for the catastrophic decline, and especially the incredibly low survival among juveniles, is unsustainable levels of subsistence hunting, particularly on the wintering areas in Myanmar and Bangladesh. 

However, with a migration flyway that runs along some of the most rapidly developing coastlines of Asia, there are several other critical threats, in particular the wholesale degradation and reclamation of the inter-tidal mudflats where the species feeds.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper was first listed as Critically Endangered in 2008 by BirdLife International on behalf of the IUCN. Over the last years the dramatic speed of decline has been realised, and thus the need for emergency action, without which the species stands a high risk of extinction. There are currently none in captivity, so there is no safety net against extinction in the wild. 

Dr Geoff Hilton, Head of Species Research at WWT said:
Spoon-billed Sandpipers are facing imminent global extinction and last-ditch efforts are now underway to found a captive population through a conservation breeding programme.

Its imminent disappearance is all the more tragic because it is a truly remarkable species: it is a small arctic wader, with a bill shaped like a spoon. This adaptation, entirely unique to its family, makes it one of the most weird and wonderful bird species on the planet.

“It is absolutely clear that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper cannot be saved without action to reduce the threats to the wild population, but it is going to be difficult to achieve a turnaround quickly enough to avert extinction. Creating a captive population now may buy us some time. Establishing a captive population is not a success in itself, but this conservation breeding programme will provide insurance against the species going extinct in the wild before actions to reverse the downward trend have taken hold.

“No one has ever reared this species in captivity, but we are global experts in rearing wetland birds and if anyone can do it, our conservation breeding team can. It is not an option to sit back while we know we have the skills to stop extinction in its tracks. After months of R&D in anticipation of the project, the experts will become ‘parents’ to the captive birds and will learn everything they can about the species.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a flagship species and if we can tackle the threats it faces along the flyway we will have helped the dozens of other migratory waterbird species that are subject to similar threats.

But, to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper WWT urgently needs to raise £350,000 to help fund this mission. 

WWT Director of Conservation, Dr Debbie Pain said:
This is a costly and difficult mission which faces logistical problems every step of the way. But the challenges are worth it – after all, what better legacy can we leave than to have helped save a species from extinction?  However, we badly need your support to help sustain the commitment WWT and our partners have made. What is more, this species is just the tip of the iceberg. Species throughout the flyway suffer similar threats, so saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and raising the profile of the threats it faces could ultimately help to safeguard the future of many other species of waders too.

WWT is launching a public fundraising appeal to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper
www.wwt.org.uk/spoonbilledsandpiper 

Tim Stowe, the RSPB’s director of international operations said: ??????“Spoon-billed Sandpipers risk being one species that might not make it until 2020, the year targeted by governments around the world to stop the loss of wildlife. Establishing a conservation breeding programme will buy this enigmatic shorebird some time – but let’s not be under any illusions, leaders in countries that can act to save Spoon-billed Sandpipers need to step up and address the levels of habitat loss and hunting that have brought this bird to the brink. 

Effective action for Spoon-billed Sandpipers will have immense additional benefits – not only for the millions of other birds that share the migration flyway, but also by ensuring vital coastal wetlands are safeguarded, bringing protection and sustainable futures to coastal communities

The BTO’s shorebird expert, Dr Nigel Clark, said:
Having spent weeks looking for Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Myanmar and seen the development and hunting pressures the species faces, it is clear to me that this cute little bird is in imminent danger.  There is only one wader that eats with a spoon and we need to try everything we can to save it from extinction.

Plover population up after 25 years of management: The management plan has worked

Written by Rich Eldred/Wicked Local Cape Cod

Twenty-five years after Piping Plovers were listed as a threatened species under the endangered species act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1986 the numbers are up, by 234 percent on the Atlantic coast of North America and by 326 percent in Massachusetts through 2009.

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An adult Piping Plover sits with a chick alongside some eelgrass. Photo courtesy of Jim Fenton and The Goldenrod Foundation

It’s been 25 years and the numbers have increased quite a bit so it is working,” reflected Ellen Jedrey, assistant director of Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program. “But it’s not just Mass Audubon. It’s the Endangered Species Act, people working together from towns, the state, Federal government, private people and education. There’s been a lot of education along the way.

Scott Hecker, now executive director of The Goldenrod Foundation, has monitored Piping Plovers since 1987.

I think the Endangered Species Act and listing has helped them tremendously,” he opined. “But the demand to use beaches is constant and pressure is increasing. The recovery so far is due to a very intense management level, an unheard of level of protection and human effort to save this bird – and how long will that be sustained?” 

Plover numbers have hit plateau in recent years, just short of the goal line. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to see 2,000 pair along the Atlantic Coast for five consecutive years. The numbers have jumped from 790 in 1986 to a peak of 1,890 in 2007, but have since dipped slightly. The problem is nest productivity, which has been in decline since 1992. It hit a 25-year Massachusetts low of 0.91 chicks per nest in 2009, the most recent year with final data. Fish and Wildlife’s long-term goal is 1.5 chicks per nest for five years; a number reached only once coast-wide (1994) since 1986.

Massachusetts has done better with a peak productivity of 2.03 birds per nest in 1992 – just after off-road vehicle restrictions went into effect. But the last year with productivity above 1.5 was 1,999.

The problem in recent years hasn’t been people driving over nests and chicks, but late spring storms washing away nests and predation from an assortment of animals.

Crows were the number one predator for the third year in a row,” Jedrey noted. “Crows and coyotes it varies year to year. It was red fox for a while and skunk. Distemper went through and knocked the skunk numbers down. You can never say this is the number one predator.

Predators have been part of the equation since plovers existed,” Hecker said. “But predation has increased a little bit because some of the predators have adapted so well to human development. Grows and gulls have increased with human trash. In suburbia there are more opportunities for fox and coyotes to find food.

And there are many more eggs to find. In 1985 there were 18 pair of plovers in Cape Cod National Seashore.

At the Seashore we have 46 nests as of Monday and 76 pairs,” noted Shelly Hack, Chief of Natural Resources, “That’s about the same as last year. We’ve lost a few nests to over-wash a couple of weeks ago. And we’ve lost some to crow predation already. Over the last 10 to 20 years there’s been a huge increase in the number of plovers nesting here. It’s been a successful program that’s now at a plateau.

Plovers nest in open sand, often in areas where vegetation and nests are scraped away by storms.

It’s been very rainy with poor weather and wet springs are not very good for ground nesting birds,” Jedrey conceded.

The first egg this year was April 25. Last year it was April 22,” Hack said. “The ones that lose their nest will re-nest, sometimes several times. We have fledglings until August and early September.

That relentless nesting keeps the beach buggies off the beaches. Otherwise it’d be about a 28-day cycle from hatching to fledging and the restrictions would be gone well before July 4. Currently Jeremy Point in Wellfleet is closed on the west side and there are closures on Great Island in Wellfleet and at Head of the Meadow in Truro.

And more birds mean more closures. But productivity gains have stalled.

Productivity has been decreasing overall on the Atlantic Coast,” Jedrey said. “But last year we had a really good year (1.29 fledglings per pair). They year before was a terrible year (0.99).”

This year the water bird program is using 26 volunteers to monitor about 225 pairs, 170 on Cape Cod, in southern Massachusetts. Their first chicks hatched Tuesday at Corn Hill in Truro.

The oil spill in the gulf (plovers winter there), slowly rising sea level (leading to more over-washed beaches) and human disturbance still hinder the recovery.

The pressure is constant to soften the restrictions,” Hecker noted.

But success is possible. The Seashore held a public meeting yesterday [May 26] as step one in writing an environmental assessment and developing a new shorebird management plan.

It’s a scoping meeting, at the beginning, it’s comprehensive, it’ll cover Least Terns, Roseate Terns, plovers, oystercatchers, migratory birds,’ Hack promised.

Plover pairs:

Year   Atlantic Coast Massachusetts

1986   790 139
1987   790 126
1988   886 134
1989   957 137
1990   982 140
1991   1003 160
1992   1013 213
1993   1100 289
1994   1162 352
1995   1350 441
1996   1364 454
1997   1386 483
1998   1379 495
1999   1392 501
2000   1437 496
2001   1530 495
2002   1690 538
2003   1676 511
2004   1658 488
2005   1624 467
2006   1779 482
2007   1890 55
8
2008   1849 566
2009   1849 593