Piping plovers from this area feared lost in hurricane

The Connecticut Audubon is reporting that something bad happened to the region’s piping plovers when they reached their wintering grounds in the Bahamas this year: Hurricane Matthew.

“Almost 1,400 piping plovers migrate there,” states the Audubon posting. “That’s about half of all the piping plovers that nest on Connecticut’s beaches and the entire East Coast.”

Piping plovers nest along Milford’s shoreline, at areas like Silver Sands and Walnut beaches, and along the shoreline near the Audubon. Each year sections of the beach are marked with string and signs to keep people from trampling on their nesting grounds.

According to Audubon magazine, a big portion of those birds winter on one cay in the Bahamas that was hit hard. A cay is a low bank or reef of coral, rock or sand.

“By the time Hurricane Matthew slammed into the Bahamas this past October, it carried a Category 4 status and wind gusts reaching 140 mph,” according to an Audubon article. “The storm tore through the islands, ripping rooftops from houses and toppling power lines. On the Bahamas’ largest island, Andros, one school was flooded out, and 80 families in the northern community of Lowe Sound lost their homes. The destruction throughout the archipelago will be felt for years if not decades — and not just by people.”

When researchers checked the cay after the storm, fewer than half the piping plovers remained.

“The rest — a significant portion of the East Coast’s piping plovers — are unaccounted for,” the Audubon reported. “Perhaps they found other beaches. But it’s just as likely they’ve perished. We won’t know for sure until piping plovers return to Connecticut and elsewhere in spring.”

The piping plover, a small, sandy-colored shorebird about the size of a sparrow, is a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act, and it is a state threatened species in Connecticut.

The tiny birds are hard to spot but fun to watch. According to the Audubon, they “run a few steps and then pause, then run again, pecking at the ground whenever they spot something edible. [They] will sometimes hold one foot forward and shuffle it rapidly over the surface of sand or mud, as if to startle small creatures into moving.”

Wildlife officials say the crisis underscores the risks that a small population of federally threatened birds face.

“It also shows how important it will be this spring and summer to monitor and protect the five dozen piping plovers that nest on Connecticut’s beaches — assuming five dozen piping plovers return from the Bahamas,” the Audubon posting states.