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Piping Plovers on the Wintering Grounds

Great Lakes Piping Plovers typically begin arriving back on their territories on Great Lakes beaches in April and May and then most depart from the region in July and August. This means that they only spend 4-5 months in the Great Lakes region and spend the majority of the year away from their breeding areas! But just what are Great Lakes Piping Plovers up to the rest of the year and where do they go? The following are some observations on those questions from Patrick Leary. Pat and his wife Doris have been observing Piping Plovers on their wintering grounds for many years and have contributed much knowledge about what we know of Piping Plover Natural History during this part of their yearly cycle. - Vince Cavalieri

A group of Piping Plovers photographed by Pat Leary on their wintering grounds.  Note the orange-flagged plovers.  These are Great Lakes Piping Plovers!

Piping Plovers on the Wintering Grounds

Patrick Leary

Since piping plover (pipers) spend the majority of their year wintering at coastal sites, it is appropriate to discuss their behavior there. "Wintering" being a misleading term, since plovers can return to winter territories in July and remain there into the following May in some locations.

Following a protracted migratory period, pipers gravitate to coastal sites that can vary from busy urban beaches (Crandon Park, Miami) to extremely remote and seldom-impacted sites like the Joulter Cays in the Bahamas or secluded flats of Texas's Laguna Madre. However, Great Lakes pipers predominantly winter at less-developed and impacted sites on the SE Atlantic and Gulf coast as found in state or federal parks and seashores.

At these sites, pipers 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. On the latter, amphipods (shrimp-like organisms) are a favored prey, but consumption of marine worms increases in estuarine habitats. (Insects are typically not a significant winter prey) Due to their distinctive (pause-probe-walk-pause-probe) foraging method, pipers appear to "wink" at distance as their pale plumage reflects in bright sunlight. This makes them somewhat easy to detect even at great distance from observers. On expansive shores, plovers are often highly exposed and vulnerable and when a raptor appears, they habitually crouch low "hunkering down" to escape detection by the predator. This behavior is unique to pipers, since all other shorebird species bolt and flush away from danger. Piping plovers typically spend the majority of daylight hours foraging for prey but will periodically retire to high beach areas to rest. This can occasionally occur during the lowest tide period, but most frequently occurs through the high tide period when foraging habitat is submerged. Roosting plovers tend to segregate themselves from larger concentrations of resting shorebirds but will occasionally conceal themselves within such large aggregations. Lone roosting pipers and even flocks can be extremely difficult to detect in high beach habitat where they remain motionless and blend right into the jumble of low dunes and cryptic wrack.

Photograph by Pat Leary.  Piping Plovers roosting in winter habitat.

During extreme winter weather, pipers may remain inactive on the high beach all day and protracted periods of severe cold, rain and overcast skies can threaten their very survival.

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