P.E.I. piping plover survives hurricane, spotted in the Bahamas

A female plover named VC who spends the summer on a beach at Cross River, P.E.I. has been spotted in the Bahamas. 

The sighting of VC is especially exciting because the Atlantic piping plover population took a devastating hit from Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. The Category 4 storm hit Andros, one of the largest islands in the Bahamas, where many of the endangered plovers spend the winter. 

"We were concerned, a lot of our plovers end up in the Bahamas over the winter," said Julie-Lynn Zahavich, stewardship coordinator for the Island Nature Trust. Since 1995, the Trust has run a piping plover guardian program where volunteers monitor the endangered shorebird and do an annual census.

Hurricane damages habitat

"Definitely it's very exciting," said Zahavich.

"We work with the plovers all summer long so it's kind of neat when they show up in another part of the world."

In 2011, the first piping plover census in the Bahamas counted more than a thousand piping plovers.There was even a park created in Joulter Cays in 2015 to protect the over-wintering plovers and other species.

After the storm, more than half of the plovers were missing in the key wintering area, raising concerns about what had happened to the birds from Atlantic Canada. 

"We're still waiting to hear back on that area, but we're really not sure what the season will bring," said Zahavich. 

"We'll have to probably wait until a full breeding season has gone to really assess the impact of the hurricane on our plovers," said Zahavich.

'Celebrity' bird

VC has spent the last two summers on the beach in Cross River and in 2015, she and her mate hatched and fledged four chicks. Fledging is when the bird reaches an age where it has flight feathers and is capable of flying, about 20 days for piping plovers.

VC hatched at least three chicks in 2016, out of four eggs, but only two fledged.

VC has become a bit of a local celebrity. Her story was shared with Grade 4 students at nearby Souris Regional School, and they made special signs to alert people on the beach to the presence of the plovers.

"In school, we learn about endangered species and sometimes we learn about tigers and pandas and we wanted to connect that lesson to something in their area," explained Zahavich.

"We do have endangered species on P.E.I., the piping plover nests on a beach not far from their school, so it was interesting for them to make that local connection."

VC and her chicks were also featured at an Island Nature Trust event at Rock Barra called Stories from the Shore, talking about the beach ecosystem. Scopes were set up at a safe distance so that participants could see the plovers.

"There's a group of people that have that personal connection with this bird now so it's particularly exciting to those people that attended to know that VC is in the Bahamas," said Zahavich.

Banded bird

VC was banded in 2014 at St. Peter's Lake Run, near Lakeside Beach, part of a movement eastward of P.E.I.'s piping plover population. 

"Where we used to see them in the national park and sometimes further west, we're definitely seeing them move east and wrapping around that northeast corner as well," said Zahavich, who notes that piping plovers are now seen on beaches around Souris, Panmure Island and Wood Islands.

The plovers are each given a two character code, printed on the bands. About 30 of 60 plovers on P.E.I. have been banded over a couple of years, though not all of them have returned. 

"Before we started banding, we actually didn't know where a large portion of our piping plovers were spending the winter so this banding is really important because we're now working with the Bahamas National Trust to protect them at the other end of their range," said Zahavich.

Without banding, says Zahavich, Islanders would never have known that VC was safe in the Bahamas.

"Piping plover banding stories are really great for us, people really like hearing about them," she said.

"It's not that often that you get to connect with an individual animal like that and I think that has a certain appeal to people and people get really excited."