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Great Lakes Piping Plovers

Life History

April - May: Spring Migration

Great Lakes Piping Plovers begin to leave their winter habitats in early April. The first spring returnees usually arrive around the second week of April. The record is held by a male that arrived in Ludington on April 5th. The first to return are experienced males, followed closely by experienced females, then the less experienced birds. Plovers returning on their first trip north may not return until much later. 

 

April-June: Territory and Nest Establishment 

Flight displays: Males begin displaying when they first return in order to establish their territories and to attract a female to join them.  They fly over their chosen territory with quick, stiff wing beats, peeping constantly.

Flight Display

Territory defense: Both males and females engage in territory defense.  They walk shoulder to shoulder, in the parallel walk, along the boundary with the birds from the adjacent territory.  Sometimes they lower their heads, puff up their back feathers, and charge at a trespassing bird. Once the chicks hatch territorial fighting increases as the chicks move into neighboring territories and their parents follow to protect them. 

Parallel Walk

 

Territorial Fight  - Two pairs

Territorial Fight  -  Male attempting to take his previous year's territory from a nesing pair

 

Scraping: Males lay on their chests and scrape out nest scrapes by kicking backwards with their feet. There's a distinctive very quick peeping that is only heard with scraping.

Nest Scraping

Tilt Display: In this courtship display the female moves into a prospective nest scrape while the male stands over her with his wings spread and tail fanned, while peeping constantly.

Goose Step (Tattoo) and Copulation: One of the most amusing plover behaviors is the goose step. The male stands up very straight with his chest puffed out and quickly kicks his legs up as he follows the female. If she's receptive she holds still and he hops onto her back for mating. 

Tilt Display

Scraping, Tilt Display, Goose Stepping, Copulation

Egg Laying: Piping Plovers typically lay one egg every other day until they complete a clutch of four eggs. The nest is on the beach usually in an area with small stones that camouflage the eggs. 

Egg Laying

Piping Plover nest

Incubation and trading incubation duties: Both parents participate equally in incubating (sitting on the eggs).  When it is time to trade duties one bird runs quickly to the nest and the other then runs away.

Incubation Exchange

During June and July

Chicks!: Chicks hatch throughout the month of June and into July.  They are precocial – they can run about and feed themselves within hours of hatching.  It takes them  three to four weeks to grow enough to be able to fly.

Brooding: During the first weeks after hatching, chicks are unable to maintain their own body temperature.  They spend much time tucked in under their parents’ wings staying warm.  You might see a fat-looking adult bird that appears to have up to 10 legs!  

One-day-old Chicks - Brooding and First Feeding Expedition

(Female is missing toes after getting entangled in string during migration.)

Brooding 9-day-old Chicks

Vince Cavalieri

Chick Defense: The adults take turns watching over their chicks and defending them from predators.  They sometimes do a broken-wing act to lead predators away.  They also  give a call that warns the chicks to hide if danger threatens.

 

 

Broken-wing Display

Alice Van Zoeren

Hiding from a Predator: A behavior that is seen year round is that of hiding from predators, especially avian predators. When a Merlin or Peregrine Falcon is spotted Piping Plovers flatten into the beach. If they have chicks they give an alarm call and the chicks respond by also flattening down. The sand color of their backs makes them nearly invisible. 

Piping Plovers Hiding  From Aerial Predator

Feeding- Summer: Piping Plovers spend much of their day year-round eating. In summer their diet consists of insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates. During winter they feast on marine worms. Plover feeding behavior is distinctly different than than of sandpipers, like the dunlins in this video. Watch for the start and stop feeding of the plover as compared with the constant probing of the sandpipers. 

Piping Plover and Dunlins feeding

July and August

Chicks Fledging: About 24 days after hatching the chicks learn to fly. Their first attempts are somewhat clumsy, but after only a few days of practice they fly like experts. Once their flight feathers and tails have grown they look like non-breeding adults, although their newly-minted feathers have light-colored borders, giving them a scaley look. 

Newly Fledged Piping Plover Chicks

"Fall" Migration: In mid-July female Great Lakes Piping Plovers begin to head south, leaving their mates to finish raising the chicks. By the end of August the males and most of the chicks will also have left. For some days before they leave they spend a lot of time resting in the cobble. Then they're gone! 

Fourteen Juvenile Piping Plovers Resting in Preparation for Migration

The fastest migration we've documented so far is that of Of,GG:X,Y. Click here to read her story.

September and October

Pre-basic Molt: Shortly after reaching their winter destinations Piping Plovers undergo a complete molt into their basic or non-breeding plumage. They lose the black forehead and neck bands and  the orange in their bills. 

Adult Piping Plover in Basic (non-breeding) Plumage

September - April

Feeding - Winter: On their winter territories Piping Plovers follow a predictable routine. As tides ebb or recede, plovers disperse across exposed tidal flats or sandy shores to predate tiny crustaceans and marine worms. (Insects are typically not a significant winter prey) Piping Plovers typically spend the majority of daylight hours foraging for prey but will periodically retire to high beach areas to rest. This most frequently occurs during the high tide period when foraging habitat is submerged.

March - April

Pre-alternate Molt: Just prior to their return north for breeding, Piping Plovers molt feathers on their heads and breasts, regaining their forehead and neck bands. The base of the bill changes to orange. Then the cycle begins again.

Piping Plover in Alternate (breeding) Plumage