Natural Resources, School of


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Farnsworth JM, Baasch DM, Smith CB, Werbylo KL. Reproductive ecology of interior least tern and piping plover in relation to Platte River hydrology and sandbar dynamics. Ecol Evol. 2017;7: 3579–3589.


Copyright © 2017 The Authors. Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License.


Investigations of breeding ecology of interior least tern (Sternula antillarum athalassos) and piping plover (Charadrius melodus) in the Platte River basin in Nebraska, USA, have embraced the idea that these species are physiologically adapted to begin nesting concurrent with the cessation of spring floods. Low use and productivity on contemporary Platte River sandbars have been attributed to anthropomorphically driven changes in basin hydrology and channel morphology or to unusually late annual runoff events. We examined distributions of least tern and piping plover nest initiation dates in relation to the hydrology of the historical central Platte River (CPR) and contemporary CPR and lower Platte River (LPR). We also developed an emergent sandbar habitat model to evaluate the potential for reproductive success given observed hydrology, stage–discharge relationships, and sandbar height distributions. We found the timing of the late-spring rise to be spatially and temporally consistent, typically occurring in mid-June. However, piping plover nest initiation peaks in May and least tern nest initiation peaks in early June; both of which occur before the late spring rise. In neither case does there appear to be an adaptation to begin nesting concurrent with the cessation of spring floods. As a consequence, there are many years when no successful reproduction is possible because emergent sandbar habitat is inundated after most nests have been initiated, and there is little potential for successful renesting. The frequency of nest inundation, in turn, severely limits the potential for maintenance of stable species subpopulations on Platte River sandbars. Why then did these species expand into and persist in a basin where the hydrology is not ideally suited to their reproductive ecology? We hypothesize the availability and use of alternative off-channel nesting habitats, like sandpits, may allow for the maintenance of stable species subpopulations in the Platte River basin.