Why do we Care?

Ultimately, we would like to rely on the river to provide tern and plover habitat, but given the changes humans have caused on the river system, we must do the best we can to protect these birds while they use the sand on industrial sites. The sand and gravel mines are federally required to ensure the birds are safe while they work. Watch this video to learn more about how employees of Western Sand and Gravel help protect these birds.

Interview with Keith Carroll and Dave Brakenhoff of Western Sand and Gravel in Nebraska. Video produced by Valerie Cuppens and Peter Stegen.

So how can you help? Read the story below to get an idea of how you can participate with scientists to gather data and answer real-world questions. Working as a volunteer on projects such as this, makes you a citizen scientist.

The Story of Erwin.

On Saturday, August 1, a member of the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team received an email with a photo and the following question, “Is this one of your plovers? If no, do you know who I can report this sighting to?”

Light blue leg bands are from Nebraska, so the message was forwarded to Bomberger Brown at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the conversation began.

The citizen scientist wrote, “I photographed the bird this morning on Bunche Beach in Fort Myers, Florida feeding at low tide on the mud flats.”

The USGS number was too small to read, but the band combination was right leg, yellow over green and left leg, black over yellow. Its light blue flag is on the upper left leg, and the USGS marker is on the upper right leg. That pattern matched a bird named Erwin banded as a chick in Nebraska.

Photo of Erwin taken at Bunche Beach in Florida. Photo by Meg Raucher.

Bomberger Brown wrote back, “Little Erwin is back on Bunche Beach in Florida!”

The story of Erwin is a good one, says Bomberger Brown,

“We have one special plover and her name is Erwin. Erwin is a male name, but we know that Erwin is a female because of the color on her beak (see the chapter on Appearance & Behavior). We met her when she was an egg because we were monitoring her nest at a site near North Bend, Nebraska. We banded her as a three-day-old chick in 2011. After about 28 days she became independent of her parents. Then, it took her about four to six days to fly to Florida. Because Erwin has the colored bands on her legs, we are able to follow her. People watch all along her migratory route, and it’s fun to hear of sightings. We have learned the Erwin spends every winter on Bunche Beach near Fort Myers, Florida. And she’s always with a group of plovers enjoying the winter months on the beaches picking up bugs and worms in the wet sand. Because she has colored bands on her legs, people tend to notice and want to take her photo. Erwin has become a very popular bird.”

She continues, “We also know that Erwin always comes back to Nebraska to nest and raise her family. In 2014, we found her nesting on a sand and gravel mine near Plattsmouth doing very well, raising four chicks. And this year, in 2015, we found her nesting at a sand and gravel mine near Ashland and she had five eggs in her nest!  This is very rare. Piping plovers nearly always have four eggs, and sometimes three, but never five.”

A piping plovers nest with five eggs. Photo by Michael Forsberg.

“We wondered, ‘Did she lay all four eggs and the fifth egg was laid in her nest by another female? Did she manage to incubate all five eggs during the entire 28 day incubation period?’ We may never know the answers to these questions, but we do know that all five eggs hatched and all five chicks now have color bands on their legs. It is unique that we have also banded both of Erwin’s parents, so we can watch three generations of Erwin’s family, and it’s good fun. It gives people the opportunity to get invested in these birds and to watch them. And when there is a sighting of a familiar bird, it indicates the world is all fine; a friend has come back.”

Erwin sits on her nest, incubating and protecting her eggs. Photo by Michael Forsberg.

Watching wildlife, whether birds at a backyard feeder or terns and plovers on a sandbar, is fascinating. Many people enjoy learning to identify wildlife, noting what time of day they see them, their size and the number of individuals present. It becomes even more interesting if a monitoring process is in place, like colored flags, leg bands, and USGS markers. Many people help scientists by sharing their observations—we call them “citizen scientists.”

You don’t have to be a trained scientist to help contribute. Your outdoor observations can be critical to other research being conducted by conservation groups. If you want to become a citizen scientist and help save rare birds like terns and plovers, become a volunteer or contact the Tern & Plover Conservation Partnership or your local birding group. You could be a vital part of the conservation and recovery process.

If you’d like to learn more about being an ornithologist or bird biologist, watch this video.

Mary Bomberger Brown tells us about her career as an ornithologist. Video produced by Valerie Cuppens and Peter Stegen.

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