The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) is a shorebird species with a relatively small habitat range. They are found along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of North America and the Great Plains region of the US and Canada. This species is absent from a part of its historical distribution - the Great Lakes - and declining in other regions.
Preserving their nesting habitat is vital for the protection of the piping plover. They favor open, sparsely vegetated sand or gravel beaches where they scrape out a shallow depression in the sand as their nest site.
Nesting occurs along the northeastern Atlantic coast and the Great Plains, usually between March and late June.
We will discuss the timing and nesting habits of the piping plover in more detail throughout the article. Read on to discover more!
Adult Piping Plover with young chicks on the beach
Piping plovers nest in open, beach-like habitats consisting of gravel, sand, or shell-covered substrate. They generally nest away from water in an elevated area that offers some cover via logs, stones, etc.
Small, isolated clumps of grass may be present around the nesting site, but the plover avoids dense vegetation.
Many piping plovers return to the same place every year to nest, particularly if they are with the same mate. Although the nest site may not be in the same spot, it is usually no more than 128 feet away from the previous year’s nest.
It is highly unlikely for piping plovers to nest in backyards. This species prefers nesting in open beach habitat that is largely unvegetated and undisturbed by human activity.
Piping plovers prefer to nest on the ground in fairly open beach habitats, so using a nest box is improbable. It would be difficult to create the plover’s nest site preferences with a box, especially since this species is particular about nest location.
Four Piping Plover chicks resting on the pebbles at sunset
Piping plover nests are primarily shallow scrapes on the ground. They are typically dug in sandy substrate and occasionally lined with shells and pebbles. In their historic range around the Great Lakes, mussel shells and crayfish were often used in the nest lining.
On average, a piping plover nest measures 9 to 10 cm in diameter and 1 to 2 cm in depth.
Recently hatched Piping Plover chick next to a egg
Piping plovers return to their breeding site in early spring, which can be anywhere between mid-March to early May depending on how far north the plovers' nest. If it is a particularly cold spring, nesting may be delayed as long as a month from the date the birds arrived.
Pairs generally form within a few days if the location is densely populated by plovers. However, if numbers are sparse, pair formation may take weeks. Once mates are chosen, nest-scraping begins as part of the courtship process.
Early spring to midsummer makes up a typical piping plover nesting season. The birds form pairs, construct their nests, then begin laying eggs by late spring. Most clutches will fledge by mid-June to early July.
What month piping plovers lay eggs is largely determined by location. In warmer regions, such as the Virginia coast, plovers may lay their eggs by late April. However, populations breeding farther north and around the Great Plains typically lay in mid to late May.
Piping plovers are a migratory species. In late summer or fall, they leave their northeastern Atlantic coast and Great Plains breeding grounds for overwintering sites along the southeastern Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
Winter habitat is similar to the piping plover’s breeding habitat. You will find them gathered along beaches, sandflats, and mudflats. They are also common amongst inlets, bays, and lagoons.
Close up of a Piping Plover
Piping plover nests are simple constructions. They use their feet to scrape away sand, gravel, and shells until they have a small depression in the ground.
Very few materials are used in piping plover nests. Nest sites are simply small depressions in loose sand, occasionally lined with shells and pebbles.
The male piping plover selects the nest sites and begins the scrape. Then, together, the pair will line the nest with pebbles and shell fragments.
Young Piping Plover chick stretching wings
Piping plover eggs are short oval or short pyriform shaped, with a smooth, slightly glossy texture. They are often described as sand-colored, usually pale buff and splotched with black, brownish black, or purplish-black.
The splotches are generally distributed evenly but can be larger and darker at the broad end of the egg.
Female piping plovers typically lay 3-4 eggs per clutch and only one successful brood per year.
Male piping plovers share incubation with the female. One parent or the other parent is usually sitting on the eggs at all times. If it is a particularly warm day, the incubating plover may leave the eggs for a few short minutes. The incubation period typically lasts for about 28 days.
Female Piping Plover standing on the pebbles
Baby piping plovers leave the nest between 21 and 35 days after hatching. Until fledging, both parents share the tasks of foraging for and feeding their young.
Piping plovers only raise one brood per year. When the first nest is unsuccessful, a pair will lay a second clutch, or even a third if the second is also destroyed.
Young Piping Plover chick
Piping plovers do occasionally abandon their nests. This typically happens when the high tide washes out a nest or when one member of a pair is killed.
Piping plovers always nest on the ground. They use their feet to scrape away sand, gravel, and shells until they have a small depression in the sandy substrate.
During the breeding season, piping plovers stay in their nest or near the nest site. However, on wintering grounds, the birds usually sleep in a group, either standing up on one leg or laying down with their head and bill tucked under their wing feathers.
Due to habitat preferences, it is unlikely to attract nesting piping plovers to your home. They require an open beach nesting location with gravel, sand, or shell-covered substrate.
Piping plovers are also not your typical backyard birds. They are sensitive species considered near threatened and easily disturbed by human activity. It is best to let them be wild.
If you find a piping plover nest, leave the area immediately, creating as little disturbance as possible - you do not want to cause the parents to abandon their nests. It is also important to inform local fish and wildlife services of the nest.
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