Solving the Piping Plover Puzzle
Under an early morning charcoal sky, I turn my face away from the salt spray kicking over the sides of a 27-foot skiff speeding through choppy waters. We are bouncing along toward the Joulter Cays—a group of about 30 low, sandy islands a few miles north of the Bahamas’ Andros Island. I hunch down in my seat and glance at the other wet faces on this impromptu water-park ride: Caleb Spiegel, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist; Hardy Eshbaugh, a botanist who specializes in Andros Island plants; and Sue Haig, a supervisory wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Haig, unable to find the windbreaker she thought she’d packed for the trip, is wetter than anyone. Water dripping off her chin, she nevertheless smiles—no doubt because she is about to see what she has been seeking for the past 30 years: a major piping plover winter hot spot, just recently discovered.
The leading authority on the tiny endangered shorebird, Haig has devoted her career to piecing together the piping plover’s natural history and full lifecycle. “I went through every museum record, every Christmas Bird Count, every piece of information you could come by to figure out where people had seen these birds in the winter, because we knew we didn’t have their winter range figured out,” she says. She walked for miles on Gulf Coast beaches and southern Atlantic shorelines in search of plovers, but this is her first trip to the Bahamas. Despite some plover sightings over the years, searching anywhere in the Bahamas—with more than 700 islands and roughly 2,000 cays (reefs made from coral, rock, and sand)—was, she says, like “looking for a needle in a haystack.”
A plump, sparrow-sized bird the color of bone and driftwood and with a black brushstroke encircling its neck, the piping plover is most often seen running along sandy shores, its legs moving so rapidly it looks like a toy that has been wound too tightly. The species breeds in three geographically distinct populations: along Great Lakes beaches, on northern Great Plains lakes and river shorelines, and on the Atlantic coastline from Newfoundland to North Carolina. Though piping plovers are relatively widespread, they’re few in number. When Haig first began her studies in the early 1980s, biologists estimated there were only about 4,000 left.
Our skiff slows to idle a short distance offshore from a cay where Walker Golder and Matt Jeffery are standing beside their kayaks. Golder, Audubon North Carolina’s deputy state director, and Jeffery, a senior program manager for Audubon’s International Alliances Program, spent the past three nights camping on the Joulter Cays. By day they walked across mudflats and kayaked in the shallows, working their way from north to south while counting piping plovers and every other bird they saw.
From the beach, Jeffery, sunglasses resting atop his cap, his face sporting a scruffy beard, calls to us cheerfully: “Did you bring the coffee?” His good spirits spring from the 230 plovers he and Golder have seen thus far—“100 at one site!” Golder says—and they still have today to explore other promising areas.
The low-lying Joulter Cays, occupying 4,000 square miles, are ideal piping plover habitat. Low tide exposes great expanses of sandbars and mudflats where the plovers and many other shorebirds feed on tiny marine invertebrates such as worms, mollusks, and small flies. At high tide, shorelines that rim the cays’ higher ground provide safe havens for roosting. With the tide ebbing, I look at the extensive flats, pocked here and there by pools of water. In the distance are glistening sandbars, ribbons of turquoise water, and the dark-green lines of mangroves that grow along the cays’ edges. The sky—deep, blue, splotched with clouds—is a dome without dimensions. The horizon looks like a place we could walk to in a couple of hours.
Haig can’t wait to start scouting for plovers. Golder points to a sandbar a couple of hundred yards away. “Let’s look at the mudflats on the other side,” he says. He picks up his spotting scope and leads the way. We tromp through mud the consistency of wet cement. I try to find the right stride for the ankle-deep goop, but every few steps one leg sinks in halfway up my shin. Within 10 minutes I’ve lost a snug-fitting water shoe. I squat down and fish around for it. As I tug the shoe out of the mud, I lose my balance, lurch forward, and get my hands in front of me just in time to avoid a mud pie in my face.
Golder and Jeffery have been slogging through mud like this for days, often dragging their kayaks behind them. Counting shorebirds in a tropical paradise sounds easy, but clearly it’s not. The days are long, and when the biologists are not paddling kayaks or trekking through mud, they’re standing for long periods in neck-ache positions as they squint through their scopes.
After an hour at the sandbar, Golder estimates that 900 or more shorebirds are roaming the flats beyond it. When the tide comes in, forcing the birds into a tighter crowd, he wants to do an exact count. As soon as the water is deep enough for the skiff’s outboard, we settle in among the kayaks and daypacks. Our captain, Franklin Riley, a local man who knows how to navigate this shallow water, wastes no time in getting us to within a half-mile of a nearby cay. Golder motions toward the cay’s beach: “That’s the white stuff I want to get a look at.” In knee-deep water, the biologists wade to a sandbar and set up their scopes. Golder, Jeffery, Haig, and Spiegel spread out and for half an hour stand like statues as they peer through their scopes. Among the gathering of shorebirds, they find 15 piping plovers.