The 2011 International Piping Plover Census turned up 1,075 plovers on just a few islands in the Bahamas – about 13% of the global population. In February and March 2014, National Audubon dispatched several teams of staff biologists to look for Piping Plovers and other shorebirds overwintering on Acklins, Andros, Crooked, Long, and east Grand Bahama islands – places previously not searched. Marianne Korosy, Audubon Florida’s IBA Coordinator, joined Lindsay Addison of Audubon North Carolina and Kerri Dikun of Audubon New York and staff biologists from the Bahamas National Trust for a full week of surveys in the North and Middle Bights of Andros Island with a weekend trip to the Joulter Cays. Total number of Piping Plovers tallied for the week – 206, with 11 birds previously banded and each with a story to tell.
Expectations were high when we arrived at our home base on North Andros – the Mount Pleasant Fishing Lodge, with comfortable cottages right on the beautiful blue Caribbean shoreline. Andros is famed for its bonefish flats and throngs of international tourists provide a living for Bahamians that operate lodges catering to bonefisherman and scuba divers. But we were after a much rarer “prey” – globally imperiled Piping Plovers.
Andros is trifurcated by tidal estuaries – called “bights” – that connect the east and west coasts. Within the bights and surrounding the main islands are hundreds of small cays and mangrove islets, shoals, coral reefs, and tidal creeks providing many square miles of bonefishing paradise and, we hoped, foraging and roosting areas for a mother lode of Piping Plovers.
Beginning on the evening of our arrival, and for the next four days, our crack Audubon team and expert guides from the Bahamas National Trust combed dozens of cays and shorelines spanning the 20-mile width of North Bight and Middle Bight and areas along the eastern coast of North Andros.
The first day’s boat-based search was a super start: 20 Piping Plovers foraging on a flat at the mouth of Cargill Creek on mainland North Andros and a short while later, we counted 38 Piping Plovers foraging on the sandy mudflats of Big Wood Key in North Bight.
The next few days were a bit slower. We targeted islet coastlines that appeared to be exposed at low tide on aerial maps but, once there, we found the majority of the island shorelines to be coral rock with vertical scarps, acres of stunted red mangroves, and shallow flats covered with seagrass – perfect for bonefishing but not for foraging shorebirds. Hour after hour we scanned shorelines from the boat or on foot using binoculars and spotting scopes.
The good news? We were able to rule out large areas of the bights as unsuitable habitat so future searches need not cover the same areas.
What we found: American Oystercatchers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Willet, Sanderling, Least and Western Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers, Royals Terns, and several species of wading birds. Bottlenose dolphins and green sea turtles joined us one day in dead-calm waters and huge red starfish dotted the shallow areas on many islands. .
A brief stop at an upper-crust lodge on Broad Shad Cay gave us up-close looks at a colorful Caribbean rock iguana, a Bananaquit, and a once-used nest of a Bahama Woodstar hummingbird. A highlight of our journeys included two Reddish Egret nests with two nestlings in each. The second nest had one dark morph and one white morph nestling – a first for all of us!
On day 4 we walked five miles of the eastern shoreline of Big Wood Cay at low tide. We found broad expanses of beautiful sand flats and coral rock with live coral, urchin and fish-populated tidal pools, a sea hare, and several small black-tipped sharks at the shoreline — but no Piping Plovers.
That evening we were ferried to the northern area of North Andros and spent the next three nights at a lodge named “Love at First Sight”. Dawn broke the following morning with a light rain that continued most of the day. Not to be deterred, we hoisted scopes and daypacks over our raincoats and hiked down the Queen’s Highway – Andros’ only paved highway – to hunt for Piping Plovers in North Blanket Sound. Scored: 14 Piping Plovers and other shorebirds under a sky full of swirling Bahama Swallows.
In addition to shorebirds, Andros is home to West Indian native and endemic birds and a host of Neotropical migrants that spend their winter in the upland Caribbean pine forests, salt scrub, and coastal hammocks.
Although our primary focus was shorebirds, we perused coastal hammocks along our target beaches logging colorful life-birds such as Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Greater Antillean Oriole, Western Spindalis, Bahama Woodstar, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Peewee, Loggerhead Kingbird, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Thick-billed Vireo, Black-faced Grassquit, Red-legged Thrush, Bahama Yellowthroat, and Bahama Mockingbird.
The week came to a close with Lindsay, Kerri, and I on a boat trip to the Joulter Cays, accompanying Matt Jeffery, Deputy Director of Audubon’s International Alliances Program, and several Audubon and Bahamas National Trust Board members and senior staff. Our two organizations are working in partnership to map and census waterbird species that will support designation of Global Important Bird Areas and National Parks such as the Joulter Cays. We found Piping Plovers – 126 of them – roosting on two sandy shoals with some other bird species we hadn’t seen previously: Marbled Godwit, Dunlin, and Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls. What a grand finale!
All in all, our team tallied 206 Piping Plovers on Andros’ islands; 11 of them were color banded. What did the bands tell us? Ten of the 11 birds breed on the northeast Atlantic coastline: five in Massachusetts, two in New Jersey, and one each in New York, Rhode Island, and Maryland. The eleventh banded Piping Plover breeds in Michigan, the only one confirmed from the Great Lakes population. Flyway connections established by resighting these special birds, and their large numbers, are the gold currency of the Audubon-Bahamas Trust partnership. Long may it live!