Nebraska’s hurricane birds

September 12, 2017 Joel Jorgensen

Contributed by Dr. Mary Bomberger Brown

In the eye of a hurricane, there is quiet for just a moment” –from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

What’s a Piping Plover to do? After a busy summer nesting in Nebraska you head off to the sunny beaches of south Texas or Florida, or maybe a nice Caribbean Island, for some well-deserved R & R and what happens? You get walloped by not one, but two hurricanes (Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida and the Caribbean). It’d be enough to make a bird think of giving up migration and staying put for the winter. But, migrating is what plovers do, they couldn’t endure a Nebraska winter, and Gulf Coast and Caribbean beaches are their destinations of choice.

FIGURE 1 (above).  Locations where light blue flagged plovers, originally banded along the lower Platte River system, have been observed during the non-breeding season on the US Gulf and Atlantic coasts from 2008 to 2017. Each colored marker in Nebraska represents a nesting site where plovers have been banded and each marker on the coast shows the location where an individual plover has been re-sighted during the winter.

One of our most famous plovers, Erwin, has spent every winter since 2011 on Bunche Beach near Ft. Myers, Florida and just a few miles north of Marcos Island where the eye of Hurricane Irma made landfall. She hatched from a nest near North Bend, Nebraska in 2011 and nested near Plattsmouth, Nebraska in 2013 and near Ashland, Nebraska in 2015. Last year she was joined on Bunche Beach by a plover from the Missouri River between Nebraska and South Dakota.

FIGURE 2 (above).  Erwin feeding along the shoreline at Bunche Beach near Fort Myers, Florida. Photo taken by Meg Rousher on 10 March 2017.

Quite a few of our plovers spend the winter on the Texas Coast, including this one banded as a week old chick near Fremont, Nebraska on 13 June 2016 and seen about 6 weeks later near Houston (Gulf Coast Bird Observatory) on 6 August 2016.

FIGURE 3 (above).  This plover was banded as a 1-week old chick on 13 June 2016 in Dodge County, NE, about 30 days after fledging, this plover was re-sighted near Houston, TX on 6 August 2016. Right photo provided by the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory.

We don’t know if any of our Nebraska plovers were directly impacted by either of the hurricanes—there is a good chance they had the common sense to evacuate ahead of the storms or find safe shelter. They are sturdy little birds, after all they do survive Nebraska tornados and hailstorms, but still, we worry about them. If their beaches eroded away from the winds, waves, and storm surges, they might have difficulty finding safe places to feed. If they were hurt, they might not survive their injuries or be taken by predators. If any plovers were lost in the hurricanes or their aftermath, it makes our efforts to protect their nesting areas here in Nebraska even more important.

If we get reports of Erwin or any of our other Nebraska plovers, we’ll let you know.

Misc scenes of cliff swallows at nests under a county bridge near Raymond, NE. Contact is cliff swallow expert Mary Brown.

Dr. Mary Bomberger Brown is the Tern & Plover Conservation Partnership Program Coordinator and a Research Assistant Professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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