Piping Plover

Piping plover stands in the sand. The front leg is bent
Piping plover stands in the sand

NPS/ Morgan Barnes

Cape Lookout National Seashore consists of important habitats, such as sand flats, beaches, intertidal zones, and marshes, that are critical to shorebirds. These undeveloped shorelines provide bird migration, breeding, and wintering habitat. Throughout the year, visitors can see multiple threatened and endangered birds that chose to stop on Cape Lookout’s beaches during their migration, or newly fledged chicks flying across the dunes, learning to use their wings.

Piping plovers
Since 1992, Cape Lookout’s staff has annually monitored piping plovers. The piping plover is a small, stocky shorebird with a short, stout bill; sandy upperparts; and orange legs. An adult only weighs 1.5 to 2 ounces, is 7 inches long, and has a wingspan of 15 inches. When looking for a piping plover, a plaintive "peep-lo" call is often heard before the bird is seen.There are three breeding populations of this plover: Atlantic Coast, Great Plains, and Great Lakes. Under the Federal Endangered Species Act, the species was listed as Threatened on December 11, 1985, in its entire range except in the Great Lakes, where it is listed as Endangered. The species nearly disappeared due to excessive hunting for the millinery trade during the 19th century. Although the piping plover has rebounded somewhat, fewer than 3,000 breeding pairs were found in the US and Canada in 2001.

Piping Plover nest
Piping plover nests are simple depressions in the sand.

NPS Photo

Why Choose Cape Lookout to Nest?
The Atlantic Coast population of the piping plover breeds along sandy beaches from Newfoundland to North Carolina from April to late August. These birds prefer sparsely vegetated open areas that are slightly raised in elevation. Their breeding territories generally include a feeding area such as ponds, ephemeral pools, moist sandflats, or near the ocean or sound side beach. Cape Lookout National Seashore contains three designated wintering critical habitats for all populations of this species including the endangered Great Lakes piping plover. A critical habitat is an area designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services that is essential to an endangered or threatened species. An average of forty-five birds are found within the park outside the nesting season. Across the 56 miles of Cape Lookout’s seashore, the area near Ocracoke Inlet is an extremely important to migrating plovers.

North Carolina is at the southern edge of the breeding range and the northern edge of the wintering range of the piping plover. Individuals from all three breeding populations--Atlantic Coast, Great Plains, and Great Lakes--spend time in North Carolina during migration and the winter. Piping plovers spend their winters on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. From North Carolina to Mexico and in the Bahamas West Indies piping plovers land on coastal beaches, sandflats or mudflats during their winter migration. Eighty percent of North Carolina’s nesting pairs were found on Cape Lookout in 2021.

Piping Plover Chick
A piping plover chick old enough to search for food along the shore, but too young to fly.

NPS Photo

Piping Plover Chick
Piping plover nests are shallow depressions in the sand, often lined with small shell fragments. Both eggs and young are well camouflaged. The average clutch size is four eggs. After about 25 days, eggs will hatch, and chicks fledge about 4 weeks after hatching. If the eggs are destroyed early in the season, the birds may lay a second nest.

About two-thirds of the nesting piping plovers in North Carolina are found at Cape Lookout National Seashore. Piping plovers are part of the storm dependent ecology of barrier islands. Storms create good open sand flat habitat and limiting vegetation. Years without storms and vegetation and predators take over the sand flats. The number of nesting pairs declined from 39 in the park in 1994 to just thirteen pairs in 2004. Habitat changes from Hurricane Isabel, 2003, and other storms improved productivity. In 2012, the number of nesting pairs in the park increased to 51. The greatest concentration of nesting piping plovers was found in the four-mile area around Ophelia Inlet.

Recently, piping plover pairs increased by forty-five percent between 2020 and 2021, from 22 pairs to 32 pairs. Even though there were more piping plover pairs, hatch success, chick survival, and fledge success decreased. Only eleven of estimated sixty-eight chicks survived to fledging. More information on piping plover nesting success at Cape Lookout National Seashore can be found in the annual reports posted on the Wildlife webpage.

Piping plover pecks at the sand. Sand is in the background
Piping plover looks for food in the sand at Cape Lookout

NPS/Morgan Barnes

Protecting Piping Plovers
Off-road vehicle traffic, and human disturbance of nests are common threats to piping plovers. At Cape Lookout, Resource Management creates nesting closures and wildlife protection zones to help reduce these disturbances. Starting April 1st, Resource Management creates no entry closures which protect the nest from being destroyed, and adults from being disturbed by human activity. Piping plovers can nest in disturbance-free areas, which helps increase the piping plover population. Vehicle closures are created as needed to keep chicks from being run over on the ocean beach.

Weather events, ghost crabs, foxes, opossums, and other birds are other common threats to this species. To help reduce protectors attacking the nests, Resource Management will install predator exclosures around the nests to protect them. While visiting Cape Lookout, look for signs designating protection zones to ensure you do not disturb any piping plovers nesting.

How Can You Help?
You can help increase the piping plover population. Dogs are a threat to piping plovers and plover nests. While visiting Cape Lookout, keep your dog on a six-foot leash to ensure piping plovers are not disturbed.

Cape Lookout is a leave no trace park, so while visiting make sure you take all your trash with you. Food waste and trash attract predators to piping plovers.

Last updated: January 30, 2023

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Harkers Island, NC 28531


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