Why scientists want to protect the piping plover’s winter home

GWEN IFILL: Now: finding, tracking and protecting endangered birds.

Last year, a National Audubon Society report found climate change is likely to disrupt the habitat of about half of North America's bird species by 2080. While a number of conservation efforts are being made in America, scientists want to get a better understanding of where some birds go when they leave the U.S., in order to protect that habitat as well.

Like humans, many head to warmer climes in the winter.

The NewsHour's Cat Wise reports on a new effort to track them.

CAT WISE: As the sun came up on a recent morning, a team of U.S. scientists who were camping out on a remote island in the Bahamas packed up and loaded their gear into an awaiting boat.

They were part of a National Audubon Society-led expedition, searching for a special visitor to these uninhabited spits of land called the Joulter Cays.

WALKER GOLDER, Deputy Director, Audubon North Carolina: Often, on this end of the island is where we see the majority of our shorebirds.

CAT WISE: This breathtaking area is home to dozens of species of native and migratory birds, including a small gray shorebird called a piping plover, which has been on the endangered species list in the United States since 1986.

WALKER GOLDER: They fly about 4,000 miles round-trip to — from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds. It's an amazing migration.

CAT WISE: Walker Golder is a biologist with the National Audubon Society. He was part of a small team of scientists who went looking for piping plovers in the Bahamas about five years ago.

WALKER GOLDER: When we got to one place on the very northern tip of the Joulter Cays and found nearly a hundred piping plovers in one place, that was a wonderful moment, and we realized that this is a significant place in the wintering grounds of this species.

CAT WISE: The birds, which nest along beaches in eastern parts of the U.S. and Canada, used to be a common sight in those areas, but their numbers have dropped to about 8,000 worldwide. Much of that decline can be attributed to human development.

And now, says Walker, like many shorebirds, piping plovers are already feeling the impacts from rising sea levels.

WALKER GOLDER: Climate change is a serious threat to these birds, and equally serious is how we react to climate change. When we begin to try to harden our shorelines, and build stone or hard structures on our beaches in an attempt to hold back the ocean, the habitat for these birds disappears. When we lose the habitat for these birds, we lose the birds.

CAT WISE: For a number of years now, a big effort has been made to protect the birds while they are nesting in the U.S. Portions of certain East Coast beaches are even closed off during their breeding season, to the chagrin of some beachgoers.

But, until recently, their winter habitat was a mystery. Now that the scientists know, they're trying to track and study the birds here.

MAN: Let's pull in there and see what we see, yes.

CAT WISE: But, first, you have to find them, no easy task, with miles and miles of beaches to search.

WALKER GOLDER: I think they have already left.

CAT WISE: Then, after a bit more searching, success.

MAN: Wait, look right over there. Look to the left. Yes, right — very tip in.

MAN: Yes.

MAN: You see them?

MAN: Got them.

CAT WISE: They moved in for a closer look.

WALKER GOLDER: I got 47.

So we would put one to two nets here, right?

MAN: One here and one where you are.

CAT WISE: The team began setting up for a key task of their expedition, to net and capture the birds. It took some time, and a bit of patience, but soon they were launching their nets.

After removing and inspecting the birds, they put easily identifiable bands, pink for the Bahamas, on their legs.

Dan Catlin is with the Virginia Tech Shorebird Program. He's helped capture and band more than 4,000 piping plovers.

DANIEL CATLIN, Virginia Tech Shorebird Program: We can actually see where each one of these birds is found during the migration and then where they are found during the breeding season. And so we can start to put these areas into perspective and determine what levels of protection are needed and what is already there.

CAT WISE: Over the course of their three-week expedition, the team was able to capture 27 birds.

While the primary focus of the scientists here is to advance their understanding of the piping plover and where it spends the winters, they also have another goal: to preserve this pristine habitat by enlisting the help of the local community, the government of the Bahamas, and the tens of millions of bird enthusiasts in the U.S. and around the world.

MATT JEFFERY, International Alliances Program Director, National Audubon Society: How many people in the room today would like to take people out bird-watching and get paid for it?

(LAUGHTER)

CAT WISE: Matt Jeffery is with the Audubon's International Alliances Program. They would like to see the Joulter Cays turned into a national park to protect the piping plovers' winter habitat from the kind of tourism and big development that have become a hallmark of the Bahamas.

But, in order to do that, they need the support of communities near the Joulters, communities that haven't benefited much from tourism.

MATT JEFFERY: There are 46.7 million bird-watchers in the United States. This is what people are paying to go and watch birds, $17.3 billion. Do you guys want some of that?

AUDIENCE: Yes.

CAT WISE: Interested locals who complete a 14-week course will be given an Audubon birding certification, but Jeffery says the real key to the effort is making sure the Joulters are kept pristine.

MATT JEFFERY: We could go on forever answering the science questions, and we'd lose the habitat. Somebody would come in and build a resort, or take out that habitat if we don't address the conservation needs right now. We really need to bring economics into the equation in order to get people to give a greater value to the environments that we're trying to conserve and preserve.

CAT WISE: But not everyone is enthusiastic about turning the area into a national park.

Phillip Rolle is a local bonefishing guide. Bones, as they are known, are fast, hard-to-catch fish which live in shallow waters. The sport is one the few sources of tourism income in this area. Rolle doesn't want the Joulters to become overly developed. But he says many locals are equally concerned about the area becoming off-limits to them.

PHILLIP ROLLE, Bonefishing Guide: They are concerned, not knowing exactly what they mean by being a park, whether that means they can't go out and bonefish anymore. They think, when you say it's a park, then you can't touch it, you can't do anything. And that's when — that's why most of the natives are saying, no, we don't want it to be a park.

CAT WISE: Even if everyone agrees going forward, money is a problem. Just a few park rangers currently manage several million acres.

ERIC CAREY, Executive Director, Bahamas National Trust: The Joulter Cays is a fairly remote area. It is going to require two or three staff. It's going to require a boat.

CAT WISE: Eric Carey is the executive director of the Bahamas National Trust, which manages the country's parks.

ERIC CAREY: We certainly believe that it makes sense for a legislator in the U.S. when they're thinking about funding conservation to note that it doesn't make sense to only protect within the U.S. borders, because these birds fly south. Of course, it doesn't take away the responsibility of the Bahamas government to protect the environment, and we take that very seriously.

CAT WISE: Meanwhile, back on the Joulters, the scientists hope a decision about whether the area will be turned into a national park will be made some time soon. But, for now, the focus around the campfire is about where to look for plovers in the morning.

I'm Cat Wise in the Bahamas for the PBS NewsHour.

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