2016-04-14 / Nature

Piping Plovers Get a Helping Hand

By Jack Kelly


Female of Sachuest Beach piping plover pair with nano-transmitter and leg band bearing designation 6XW, shown last season. Piping plover monitor Shirley Lally checks the recently installed boundary ropes and cautionary signage at Sachuest Beach. 
(Photos by Jack Kelly) Female of Sachuest Beach piping plover pair with nano-transmitter and leg band bearing designation 6XW, shown last season. Piping plover monitor Shirley Lally checks the recently installed boundary ropes and cautionary signage at Sachuest Beach. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Aquidneck Island’s diverse wildlife habitats provide a rich environment for breeding and nesting birds of all types. Spring migration has brought two pairs of piping plovers back to the Middletown beaches where they successfully nested last year. One pair of this endangered shorebird species is setting up a nest on Third Beach, while the other pair is scouting a suitable location on the eastern end of Sachuest Beach.

The piping plover is a small pale-colored shorebird with a gray-colored back, wings, head, and white underparts. Adults have a black-tipped orange bill, pale face, a black neck ring, a black “eyebrow” between the eyes, and orange-yellow legs.


Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Piping plovers forage along the water’s edge by running short distances, then pausing, looking, and listening before extracting small invertebrates from the mud. The bird may use its feet to scrape the surface in searching for prey.

Courtship routines for this species may involve rhythmic calling and posturing. Plover chicks are pre-cocial, moving about shortly after hatching. They will accompany their parents to the shoreline to feed. The young birds’ eyes may not be fully open when they seek their first sustenance, and for their first couple of weeks the chicks are no bigger than a cotton ball, with short toothpick-like legs. During the heat of the day, the youngsters will brood under the adults’ wings for protection from the sun and predators.

Piping plovers and their chicks face dangers from a number of animals, but their deadliest challenge is from humans. Beginning in the late 1940s, the species’ numbers began to decline due to habitat loss from shoreline development and human activities on the beaches where they nested. By the mid-1980s, the breed was designated an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in an attempt to protect the vulnerable birds. These efforts have been rewarded, as conservationists have witnessed an increase in population, especially over the past decade.

Portsmouth resident Shirley Lally, known locally as “The Plover Lady,” is also preparing for a new nesting season. Lally, a 12-year veteran volunteer with USFWS at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, has been an active piping plover monitor for the past nine years. She was recognized for her efforts with the R.I. National Wildlife Refuge Complex Volunteer of the Year Award in 2013.

“Plover monitors educate the public about the behaviors, nesting priorities, and feeding patterns of these unique birds. We also try to limit human-caused disturbances to the nesting areas, the adult birds, and the chicks,” Lally said.

According to Ryan Kleinert, USFWS piping plover coordinator for the R.I. National Wildlife Refuge Complex, “We have had very successful nesting seasons in the past few years, thanks in part to dedicated and thoughtful volunteers like Shirley Lally.”

He continued, “The USFWS managed 74 pairs of piping plovers, up from 70 pairs in 2014, across 16 sites during the 2015 nesting season, with a productivity of 1.27 chicks per pair with predation and human interference. The Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island managed 25 pairs, up from 20 pairs in 2014, across nesting areas in Tiverton and Little Compton, with a productivity of 2.48 chicks per pair. These were our best results in a number of years. This produced a state productivity level of 1.58 chicks per pair.”

An innovative and exciting aspect of research was added last year. Biologists, led by Dr. Peter Paton, professor of natural resources at the University of Rhode Island, and Ph.D. student and USFWS biologist Pam Loring of UMass Amherst, were able to attach leg tags and radio nano-transmitters to both females of the Middletown pairs. This project will help determine the populations and migratory routes of a number of shorebird, seabird and other avian species in the Buzzards Bay and Gulf of Maine regions.

The team was able to tag a number of piping plovers along the Rhode Island coast, which were then tracked on their southbound migrations in late summer. Paton explained, “We were able to track many of our birds as far south as North Carolina. Forty-four percent of Rhode Island-marked piping plovers were re-sighted on migration routes or at their wintering grounds near Ft. Myers, Fla., the Bahamas, and as far away as the Turks and Caicos Islands. The female of the Sachuest Beach pair, bearing tag 6XW, was positively identified on the wintering grounds in the Bahamas!”

Lally is impressed with the new technology but knows that hard work lies ahead in offering protection to the plovers and their young. “It’s wonderful to see the plovers return again this year. This marks three seasons that these two pairs have chosen these areas. We will do all we can to limit disturbances to their nesting. All we ask is that folks respect the roped-off areas and not disturb the nesting sites,” she said.

“The biggest problem we have is folks who want to see the chicks running on the beach or going to the water’s edge to forage with the adult birds. This is a time when we can literally love these little guys to death.”

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