by Elizabeth C. Buck
An American Oystercatcher in flight (photo by E. Vernon Laux).
It may seem like August has just arrived, and there is still plenty of summertime to be enjoyed by all, but our shorebirds are already thinking about fall migration. Nantucket is home to many nesting shorebirds that now have young fledglings ready to make their journey south to their wintering grounds. Among these resident shorebirds are the famous Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) and the American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus).
These species have one big thing in common – they are ground nesters. Unlike the “typical” bird’s nest made of twigs high up in a tree, plover and oystercatcher nests are located in small depressions in the sand. The result is very little protection from weather, tides, or predators such as people, cars, gulls, crows and dogs. If the nest can survive these challenges, the chicks will hatch, relying on their parents for the next few days to help regulate their body temperature. Parents will shield their young from the hot sun, or have them huddle under their feathers from the cold, wind, and rain. If the chicks survive these first crucial days, they then become highly mobile, traveling over large areas to the water’s edge and back in search of food with their parents. This may include running as fast as they can from predators (being mostly avian on Nantucket), being chased by unleashed dogs, and avoiding being stepped on by beach goers and run over by 4WD vehicles. Chicks instinctively hide in small sand depressions for protection, which often include sand tire tracks from vehicles or footprints. These various adversities faced by nesting shorebirds, which are legally protected, illuminates the need for our extra help and protection for a successful breeding season.
An adult Piping Plover protects two of her chicks by hiding them under her wings and feathers at Eel Point. Can you spot the third chick in the photo? (photo by Elizabeth C. Buck).
Following the arduous nesting season, the next priority for both adults and chicks is to store up enough fat reserves for a long-distance migration to their wintering grounds. Many shorebirds will flock together, rest and feed, often in the same beach habitat protected for nesting; this is called staging. The symbolic fencing that is kept in place after the nesting season is over is not an oversight on the part of land managers- it is there to provide a small refuge where birds are able to feed and store up energy for their long journey. The birds will thank you for respecting these areas by not disturbing a staging flock; if this happens repeatedly during this critical time in their life cycle, it will deplete their fat reserves and might not allow them to have enough energy to reach their winter destination.
It has always been said that birds fly “south” in the winter, but what does that actually mean for shorebirds, and where are their winter grounds? Many researchers are trying to find answers to this question, and recently have been able to pinpoint some key places where American Oystercatchers and Piping Plovers travel during their seasonal migrations.
The American Oystercatcher Working Group (AOWG) is a collaboration of researchers studying population dynamics and movement patterns of this species along the eastern seaboard and have been working with many organizations, including some on Nantucket, to help collect data. Nantucket, Tuckernuck and Muskeget play a key role in this data collection, as these islands collectively have the highest density of nesting American Oystercatchers in Massachusetts. In order to obtain movement pattern data, oystercatchers are banded with a colored band bearing a 2 or 3 letter code on both legs, located just above the bird’s “knee.” Anyone that observes a banded bird is encouraged to report sightings to the AOWG’s website, www.amoywg.org. All that is needed is the location where it was observed, the band color and code, and the date.
Two banded American Oystercatchers along the shoreline of Clark’s Cove (photo by Elizabeth C. Buck).
As a result of the information collected thus far, the AOWG has found that many American Oystercatchers winter in the southern United States, from Virginia southward to Cedar Key, Florida (located along the Gulf Coast). However, they may go as far south as Ecuador! Public reported sightings and re-sight reports from biologists are providing more information about this species every day.
Researchers have found that the wintering grounds of Piping Plovers range along the coast from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico as far west as Texas. A large population (several hundred) have recently been discovered to prefer the Bahamas. Many Piping Plovers found in the Bahamas are now banded with a flag with a 2-letter code on their leg. Nantucket organizations also play a key role in this research by observing for banded birds, assisting researchers such at the National Audubon Society and the Bahamas National Trust. One of these Piping Plovers with a pink band was re-sighted in 2015 on the beach at Western Avenue (near Surfside) on Nantucket. Anyone is welcome to help these efforts by checking the legs of these shorebirds and reporting the location, band code and color, and date by emailing BahamasPIPL@audubon.org.
A pink banded adult Piping Plover that was seen on the beach by Western Avenue in Surfside in 2015 (photo by Edith A. Ray).
Being an island, Nantucket offers plenty of shoreline habitat for these shorebirds. Many island organizations who own and manage these beaches work hard to protect shorebird nesting and staging habitat through symbolic fencing, temporary beach closures, and public outreach. These organizations include Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Massachusetts Audubon Society, The Trustees of Reservation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Town of Nantucket Department of Natural Resources, and the Tuckernuck Land Trust. Staff from these organizations are with these birds from April through September, monitoring their nests and chicks, protecting their habitat, and educating the public. All these groups frequently meet and collaborate during the nesting season to discuss the latest shorebird news, bird movements around the island, and public outreach tactics. With the commitment of local and national conservation groups and the help and mindfulness of the public, these uncommon species will continue to seek Nantucket as a refuge– offering the public a chance to share the beach with and catch a glimpse of these beautiful and unique birds.
*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror on August 11, 2017 in the article series called Island Ecology. The Foundation’s Science staff regularly contribute to our local newspaper and reprint the articles here the following week.
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us! www.nantucketconservation.org