Currently, the only way to tell a piping plover is specifically a Great Lakes piping plover (GLPIPL) is by their bands. An orange flag on an adult is the distinctive and immediate tell. (Learn more about piping plover bird banding here.) We do not use any tracking technology such as geolocators or transmitting tags on the birds that are being used on other species of birds to pin point where a bird is specifically.
During the breeding season (April-August) our monitors and crew primarily are the ones to find piping plovers across the Great Lakes region. This is done extensively with countless miles of beach thoroughly searched. Given this, we know the exact range of GLPIPL on their breeding grounds. Last year (2015) the birds represented the full extent of their historic range with plovers found in Minnesota to New York, Illinois to Canada, and everywhere in between.
During the non-breeding season (August-April) we rely on bird-watchers and citizen scientists to submit a report on any GLPIPL they might find. This is completely voluntary. We are grateful to all of those that have gone birding and taken the time to share their sightings of GLPIPL with us. Given that we do not have a winter crew tasked with the mission of finding every plover on the non-breeding grounds, we don’t have as specific an idea of where the birds are. GLPIPL scatter across a vast area during the winter and with so few birds relatively, both in general and in comparison to the Great Plains and Atlantic population, finding every bird can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
Through the reports people turn in we can get a good idea of the range at least. The most northern site used by GLPIPL during the non-breeding season is the southern coast of North Carolina, south of the Outer Banks. GLPIPL have been found as far south as the Caribbean. The most western sites GLPIPL have spent the winter include the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico, including Texas and Mexico. No birds have ever been reported more east than the US coast. The goal is to one day have a more specific awareness of where GLPIPL spend their non-breeding season. Not only is this important for filling in gaps of our GLPIPL knowledge and understanding, but is vital to improving conservation efforts. Piping plovers need habitat in multiple locations to be protected in order to have places to live throughout the year, not only during one season.