"They are like cotton balls on toothpicks...little puffs of foam."
For wildlife biologist Connie Mueller, piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) are "amazing little birds, lovable to look at."
But the tiny shorebirds are in constant peril. Only an estimated 6,000 nest in the United States, mainly in the Great Plains and along Atlantic Coast beaches. Mueller and her colleagues at the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota are creating what she calls "a fabulous success story" in restoring its piping plover population.
In the alkali lakes area (which includes five national wildlife refuges from northeast Montana to central North Dakota), the piping plover population has nearly doubled in the last five years, according to Mueller. The plover population grew from 236 pairs in 2003 to 427 pairs in 2008.
Life is tough for the small but tenacious birds. Mueller has seen them endure weather ranging from snow and hail to 90-degree temperatures on a sun-baked beach. The birds make their nests, or scrapes, on sparsely vegetated or gravel beaches adjacent to alkali wetlands. Their eggs face attacks from natural enemies, including foxes, skunks, and raccoons, as well as winged predators such as red-tailed hawks, gulls, and crows.
Even a human...