Equipped with datasheets, binoculars, spotting scopes and a hand-held GPS, a passerby may easily guess our purpose with a quick glance and label us “the bird people” on the beach. Indeed, we are definitely “bird people” but our purpose is slightly more complicated and definitely quite meaningful. At a distance you can recognize it by its size and silhouette, a stout little shorebird darting quickly across the sand only to stop and start again abruptly. It’s pale coloration paired with its yellow legs confirms what we’re searching for, the Piping Plover.
Piping Plover may be small, only seven inches long and the color of white sand, but its presence (or lack thereof) speaks volumes about the health of our shoreline ecosystems. This federally endangered and threatened shorebird’s total population is estimated to be a mere 8,000 birds. The major factor for its rapid decline is simply loss of habitat. The loss of coastal and wetland habitats is evident across the United States, but is especially apparent in Louisiana. During the winter months you can find this imperative shorebird foraging for marine invertebrates across large, sandy beaches and tidal flats designated as critical habitats in the Gulf of Mexico including the Caminada Headland. During the summer months they breed in three geographic regions: the Atlantic Coast, Northern Great Plains and the Great Lakes.
Many large-scale restoration projects are being planned and conducted in the state to rebuild and combat further degradation. The projects aim to produce long-term positive benefits to coastal residents and animals. It is also necessary to consider the short-term impact associated with active ongoing restoration efforts. The extensive process it takes to conduct the restoration may pose temporary short-term problems for certain shorebird species, especially threatened shorebirds such as the Piping Plover.
In order to document any short-term impacts of these restoration projects, BTNEP has banded (birding pun intended) together a team of coastal bird surveyors to monitor Piping Plover within the footprint of the Caminada Headland Restoration project; a project funded by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The project began with the first pre-construction surveys undertaken during the fall of 2012. The surveys take place once every two weeks continuing through 2013 into 2014, for the duration of the restoration project. The team surveys for Piping Plover along with other key species such as Red Knots, Snowy Plovers, and Wilson’s Plovers.
Covering beaches that stretch nearly 16 miles, we document the number of individuals, coordinates, photo documentation if possible and color band combinations if applicable. Locating banded birds is exceptionally useful for monitoring the movements and habits of the birds. Banded birds are given a unique color combination on their legs so that each bird can be recognized and recorded as an individual with its own story. We can determine where they are migrating from based on their flag colors and combinations.
Increasing a bird species dwindling population size is no small task. Many may disagree with efforts being made to protect the Piping Plover and other coastal birds; “it’s just a bird,” they might say. But their struggle is ultimately our struggle too. We depend upon our wetlands and waterways to feed us, shelter and sustain us just like the birds’ do. When we see these birds foraging on the beach, tirelessly hunting for food, enduring harsh weather conditions and watching their homes deteriorate with the shrinking coastlines; we see a reflection of our own coastal communities. By ensuring a future for them, we are ensuring our own as well.