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Searching for Nebraska Piping Plovers in Texas

Last week, I was in Galveston, Texas, for the Central Flyway meeting and I had the opportunity to spend a little over 24 hours searching for “our” Piping Plovers in nearby wintering habitats.  Lauren Dinan and I have blogged (for example, here and here) about our Piping Plover color-banding program we do in collaboration with the University of Nebraska’s Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership.  We color-band Piping Plovers on and along the lower Platte River in eastern Nebraska, where they breed, to learn about various facets of this state and federally threatened species’ life history.  After spending the summer in eastern Nebraska, our Piping Plovers migrate to wintering areas along the Gulf and southern Atlantic Coasts.  Identifying sites where “our” Piping Plovers spend the winter is important because conservation efforts need to focus on the species’ entire annual cycle.  If good or bad things happen to Piping Plovers at wintering sites, it has implications for maintaining Piping Plover’s population on the lower Platte.  That’s the background, now the search.

Joel Jorgensen on the Texas Coast
Me, on the beach at San Luis Pass near Galveston, Texas. Less-than-ideal weather meant I had the beaches largely to myself while I searched for Piping Plovers.

My search began at Galveston Island State Park where I walked about six miles of beach, which is the type of habitat where one expects to find Piping Plovers.  Weather was actually poor (cloudy, temps in the 50s) by Texas coastal standards.  This meant I had the beaches mostly to myself, a major plus in my mind.   It did not take long to find my first Piping Plover and I eagerly inspected his legs for color-bands.  The bird did indeed have color-bands, but was it one of ours from the lower Platte River?

Piping Plover on the TX coast
A wintering Piping Plover in its typical winter habitat along the Texas Coast.

The answer was no.  This bird possessed  a red flag on the upper portion of the leg.  Flags, as they are called, are used by different entities to identify the particular region where the bird was banded and by which research group.  We use light-blue flags for our lower Platte River birds.  Red-flagged Piping Plovers were banded on the Texas Coast as part of a radio-telemetry study.

Red-flagged Piping Plover
The first Piping Plover I found had a red flag (the color band with the extension on the bird’s upper right leg), which indicates it was banded on the Texas Coast.  I would end up finding approximately sixteen red-flagged Piping Plovers during my foray.

My search continued and I kept walking.  Finding Piping Plovers was not a problem, but the next color-banded bird I found possessed a green flag.  Green flags are used by a research group from Virginia Tech University which has studied Piping Plovers on the Missouri River, primarily along the Nebraska/South Dakota border, for years.  While a  green-flagged Piping Plover might be a Nebraska plover, it is not one of ours from the lower Platte River.

Green-flagged Piping Plover
A green-flagged Piping Plover found on the second day of my search. Green flags are used by a research group from Virginia Tech University who have studied Piping Plovers on the Missouri River for several years.

My search went on.  I ended day one at San Luis Pass walking many more miles of beach.   I found lots of Piping Plovers, but none of ours with light blue flags.  In addition to red-flagged and green-flagged birds, I also found several yellow-flagged Piping Plovers.   Yellow flags are used by the USGS-Northern Prairie research group who study Piping Plovers in the northern Great Plains.

Yellow-flagged Piping Plover
Piping Plovers with yellow flags are banded by a research group from USGS-Northern Prairie.  The letter/number combination on the flag is also used to identify the individual bird.

The next morning I took the ferry from Galveston over to the Bolivar Peninsula.  I only had a few hours to search for Piping Plovers and I thought my time would be spent most efficiently at Bolivar Flats, a renowned shorebird site.

Bolivar Flats birdlife
Birdlife on Bolivar Flats. Several Piping Plovers are in the foreground with other shorebirds and American White Pelicans and other species are in the background. Many of these birds, including the plovers and pelicans, may find themselves in Nebraska in the near future.

During my foray on Bolivar Flats, I was again finding many Piping Plovers and several with bands.  As my time was dwindling, I had still not found a lower Platte River Piping Plover.  Then, with only about an hour left before I needed to head to the airport to catch my flight, there it was in all of its grandeur.  A light-blue flag on a Piping Plover.    Finally, one of our birds.

Our light-blue flagged Piping Plover
Our light-blue flagged Piping Plover on Bolivar Flats. Mission accomplished.

Once I got some photos of our bird, it was time to depart.  I got back on the ferry taking me back to Galveston, so I had a chance to call up Lauren to get this bird’s history.  The blue-flag tells us it is ours, but the other color bands are unique.  Thus, we know this bird as an individual.  The Piping Plover was banded as an adult at a sand and gravel mine near Fremont in 2013.  Hopefully I will see him again in Nebraska this summer.

Nongame Bird Blog

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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