The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus circumcinctus), a small migratory shorebird found throughout the wetlands of the Prairie region within Canada and known for its short and stout appearance, makes its home during its breeding season from April/May to August in the Prairie Regions of Canada as well as Ontario.
A small, round bird - approximately 17-18cm in length and weighing between 43-64 grams - the Piping Plover is best known for its very distinct black markings; one on the breast band, one above their white forehead, and along with their tail feathers. Among the white and grey colouration, the black markings as well as their bright orange legs and beak, make them uniquely camouflaged birds on the sandy shorelines of prairie lakes and beaches.
Due to their camouflage, they are often hard to spot among the sand and are most notable for running a short distance before stopping to select worms from the sand where their camouflage is broken to reveal the adorable birds as they scurry about the sandy beaches.
Their diet largely consists of the things you might typically find along the shoreline of lakes and beaches - marine worms, bugs, and small crustaceans. While oftentimes they are found in groups, they typically forage for food on their own or with few others - running short distances and stopping abruptly when food is present.
These marvellous little shorebirds create their nests by scraping out a very shallow nest within the sand along the shoreline where the female will typically lay four eggs. Along these shorelines, they rely on the presence of driftwood, seaweed and seashells to serve as protection from predators.
Piping Plovers were first listed as endangered status by COSEWIC in 1985 where two subspecies were later identified in 2001, with the subspecies circumcinctus designated as endangered in 2001 and later confirmed again in 2013. They are currently still endangered due to the ongoing threats they face.
Of the primary threats, Piping Plover populations are most at risk from habitat loss and fragmentation, through the erosion of coastlines, beaches and shorelines where these plovers create their nests and rely on these sites for feeding. Due to the very limited time that Piping Plovers have to find a mate and produce offspring (from April to August) human disturbances can greatly affect their ability to successfully mate and breed within the breeding season.
Human activity and disturbance come in many forms and have equally devastating consequences for these important shoreline birds. Such activity includes recreational or building activity resulting in the erosion of lake and beach habitat shorelines, increased foot or all-terrain vehicle traffic on beaches and the presence of domesticated pet species increasing predation and destruction of Plover nests.
While much of the existence of humans in Plover habitat has lead to a significant decline in the Plover population, there are several things that we can do to help protect breeding pairs. During the months from April to August, decreasing all foot traffic in active nesting sites, and reporting these nesting sites to the appropriate bird protection organizations and data collection agencies, will ensure numbers are being continuously updated and recorded, while also decreasing the risk of startling or trampling nests in the area. Limiting the access of domestic animals and pets, including cats, dogs, horses and cattle, to shorelines and beaches will reduce the amount of predation and destruction to both the nest site and the adult Plovers. Collecting any trash or waste remnants along waterfronts and coastlines ensures unwanted critters or predators will not be attracted to the nesting sites of the Plovers, while also ensuring their safety from entanglement or choking on material waste products. And finally, resisting the urge to remove or collect driftwood, seashells or seaweed from shorelines, will increase the amount of usable protective covering available to the Plovers in times of increased natural predation in the area.
To learn more about Piping Plovers, our local populations within Canada, and ways that you can take action to help protect them, check out the resources below!