Date of this Version
Robinson, S. G., J. Fraser, D. Catlin, S. M. Karpanty, J. Altman, R. Boettcher, K. Holcomb, C. Huber, K. Hunt, and A. Wilke. 2019. Irruptions: evidence for breeding season habitat limitation in Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus). Avian Conservation and Ecology 14(1):19. https://doi. org/10.5751/ACE-01373-140119
Effective management of wildlife populations requires identification of the factors limiting their growth. The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) is an imperiled, disturbance-dependent, shorebird species that nests on broad, sparsely vegetated beaches, sandbars, and lakeshores. In areas minimally affected by human use, plover habitat loss occurs through vegetation encroachment and erosion. Alternatively, habitat availability may be increased by sand deposition caused by storm- or flood-induced sediment transport or scouring that removes vegetation, or by receding lake levels. To test the hypothesis that plover populations are limited by available breeding habitat, we estimated the amount of habitat available before and after four significant storm and flooding events (i.e., disturbance) by classifying pre- and postdisturbance aerial imagery. We then evaluated the population changes that occurred after disturbance-related habitat alterations. Additionally, we report on population changes from four population increases that occurred after habitat creation events for which we did not have imagery suitable for classification. The storm and flood effects considered were those from hurricanes and nor’easters on barrier islands of Virginia, North Carolina, New York, and Maryland, USA, and those from floods and high water output from the Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River between South Dakota and Nebraska, USA. The amount of nesting habitat increased 27–950% at these sites, and plover populations increased overall 72–622% after these events (increase of 8–217 pairs in 3 to 8 years after the disturbance, average 12–116% increase annually). The demographic changes were driven by productivity in some cases and probably by increases in immigration in others, and occurred simultaneously with regional increases. Our results support our hypothesis that the focal plover populations were at or near carrying capacity and are habitat limited. Currently, human interventions such as beach stabilization, the construction of artificial dunes, and dams reduce natural disturbance, and therefore, the carrying capacity, in many plover breeding areas. If these interventions were reduced or modified in such a way as to create and improve habitat, plover populations would likely reach higher average numbers and the potential for achieving recovery goals would be increased.