The iPlover Project
An innovative app is helping enhance habitat resilience for beach-nesting shorebirds in the face of sea-level rise.
Spring has arrived and hundreds of pairs of the federally threatened piping plovers have returned from their southern wintering grounds to the wild barrier island beaches of The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve.
These small, elusive shorebirds are seeking out the perfect place to establish a nesting territory in which they will care for their eggs and raise their young over the next several months. Ideal habitat for piping plover are open beaches along the narrow coastal fringe of the Atlantic Coast just beyond the ocean’s reach and free from predators and excessive disturbance.
As they instinctively choose the perfect spot, what they don’t realize is that the details of their final decision – the exact placement of their nest on the beach, the characteristics of the habitat around their nest, the relative location of their nest to the ocean, dunes and other prominent features on the beach – will be plugged into sophisticated models to predict what their required nesting habitat will look like along the coast in the future context of climate change and sea-level rise.
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are working with biologists along the Atlantic Coast on a project where real time data about piping plover nest sites are collected through an innovative smartphone application called iPlover.
The iPlover app, developed by USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center and the USGS Center Center for Integrated Data Analytics, provides resource managers and scientists along the coast with a tool to consistently collect data on the environmental conditions of beach habitats and plover productivity across entire U.S. Atlantic Coast breeding range.
This information enables greatly enhanced regional coordination for monitoring and management of the plovers, while enabling scientists to model potential future availability of plover habitat and species response in the face of sea-level rise and climate change.
The iPlover project aims to “use consistently-collected data to inform models that predict habitat suitability along the coast and turning this into actionable information for management,” says Dr. Rob Thieler, a geologist with USGS’ Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center who is a co-leader of the project. “Ultimately, we hope this will help resource managers to increase the resilience of beach habitats and the shorebirds that depend on them in the face of climate change.”
The Nature Conservancy has been participating in the project for three years, hosting the scientists from USGS/USFWS at the Virginia Coast Reserve to explore some of the best examples of Piping Plover breeding habitat on the East Coast.
“The Virginia barrier islands are the best example of a naturally functioning barrier island system that we have on the U.S. Atlantic Coast” says Alex Wilke, a Coastal Scientist with the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve program. As a result, almost 300 breeding pairs of piping plovers are currently found nesting on Virginia barrier island beaches, representing roughly 15 percent of the Atlantic Coast population, currently estimated at roughly 2,000 pairs.
These plovers have faced near extinction due to the common practice of hunting shorebirds in the 19th century for hat feathers followed by the loss of habitat resulting from increased beach recreation and development throughout in the 20th century.
Since being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1986, the piping plover has steadily been recovering thanks to concerted efforts to protect breeding habitat from human disturbance and predators.
Part of continuing effective recovery efforts is to better understand how sea-level rise and coastal storms will change the availability of beach habitat for these little shorebirds. “The information that we can provide about plover nest location on the Virginia barrier islands represents decisions made by these birds on a truly wild coastline. We hope that these results will contribute significantly to the iPlover project’s ability to produce meaningful information about future coastal habitat change in the face of sea-level rise and other changing conditions that will help better manage the plovers and beach habitats along the entire Atlantic Coast.”