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Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center

Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center > Sea-Level Rise Hazards and Decision Support > Biological Systems > Piping Plover

Beach-dependent Shorebirds

The barrier beaches that comprise the piping plover’s (Charadrius melodus) breeding, migration, and wintering habitat in the U.S. are dynamic systems that respond to fluctuations in sea level by changing their morphology and distribution of landscape elements (e.g., beaches, dunes, tidal flats). Piping plovers are uniquely suited as a beach-dependent indicator species for understanding sea-level rise impacts to beach habitats. Plovers have closely-defined habitat tolerances. Both the habitat and the birds respond rapidly to coastal processes such as overwash, inlet formation, and island migration that are sensitive to changes in the rate of sea-level rise. This research focuses on the integration of plover ecology with coastal landscape evolution. Although the research focus is on the effects on piping plovers, results are expected to inform management of other sensitive beach-strand species, including (but not limited to) least terns, American oystercatchers, Wilson’s plovers, and seabeach amaranth (a federally-listed threatened plant species). Thus, this research can provide the scientific underpinning for a broadly-applicable strategic habitat conservation approach. ¬†

Photo of nesting piping plover

Figure P1. Nesting Piping Plover (J. Cohen, Virginia Tech).

One of the project goals is to analyze datasets documenting piping plover habitat and develop a plover behavior model (e.g., nesting density, distribution, productivity, and/or local population growth rate) that is quantitatively tied to measurable physical variables including elevation, slope, frequency of inundation and overwash, and amount of vegetation. Another project goal is to develop a habitat evolution model by relating the data sets documenting changes in the habitat (e.g., topography, shoreline position, vegetation) to changes in sea level and storminess. A predictive habitat evolution model will be coupled to the plover behavior model. These two coupled models (plover behavior and habitat evolution) will be evaluated against historical observations to determine hindcast skill. Assuming that the coupled system has some skill, we will model future scenarios to analyze the efficacy of existing and alternate conservation strategies against plausible sea level and other future climate variables.

This project is also employing a novel approach to data collection in the piping plover's U.S. breeding range, through the use of a USGS-developed smartphone application called iPlover. Conducting coupled biological and geological research across the range of relevant environments and habitats can be difficult. Many data collections focus on either the biology or the geology, are collected by non-specialists, and lack observational uniformity. iPlover addresses these difficulties in collecting biogeomorphic information at piping plover  nest sites in the the U.S. Atlantic breeding range. Data from device sensors (GPS, camera) and subjective observer biogeomorphic classifications are transmitted from the devices to a central data repository where they are curated, and processed for input into the models described above. The approach used here to develop and deploy a distributed data collection system has broad applicability to interdisciplinary environmental monitoring and modeling.

 

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