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Meet the Piping Plover and Least Tern

Piping Plover

Markings and Coloring

While its plaintive call is easily recognized, the six-inch-tall piping plover can be difficult to spot against a sandy backdrop.

The small bird’s back and head are soft gray, while its belly and chest are creamy white. Viewed from a distance, the strokes of black across its forehead, around its neck, and at the tip of its tail feathers look like seaweed washed up onto the beach.

Adult piping plovers have yellow-orange legs which speed them along as they search the shoreline for marine worms, crustaceans, sand fleas, and various insects.

Migration and Nesting

After wintering on beaches from North Carolina to Florida, and occasionally south to the Bahamas and West Indies, piping plovers migrate north to breed, some as far as Canada.

Arriving in Maine by early April, they remain until September, when they migrate south again for the winter.

The piping plover’s nest—or “scrape”—consists of a small indentation made in the sand above the high tide line and may be lined with seashell fragments or small stones.

Sometimes the birds choose to shelter their nests under a tuft of vegetation.

Courtship and Reproduction

Unlike other coastal birds in Maine, nesting piping plovers are not colonial.

During courtship, a male bird makes numerous scrapes before his mate chooses one in which to lay her clutch of four eggs.

Usually, she will lay one egg each day or two, incubating the clutch only after laying the fourth egg. Piping plover chicks hatch after approximately four weeks fully feathered and able to probe the sand and wrack line for invertebrates.

They fledge (begin to fly) in 28-35 days and, if they are lucky, may live as long as 14 years.

Least Tern

Markings and Coloring

At only nine inches long, the least tern is the smallest North American tern (it was once known as the “sea swallow”).

The least tern has a gray back, white chest and belly, yellow legs, and the black head characteristic of the tern family. The most observable field mark for identification is the white wedge on the least tern’s forehead.

Least terns can bee seen hovering above the water before diving to catch small fish or nesting in noisy, active groups on mostly bare sand spits.

Migration and Nesting

Least terns winter in Brazil, but migrate annually to their breeding habitat on the sandy beaches along North America’s Atlantic coast. They reach Maine, their northernmost destination, by mid May and begin their courtship ritual.

Least tern nests consist of small scrapes in the sand above the high tide line.

Courtship and Reproduction

A female least tern will lay two to three eggs in a nest.

After approximately 21 days of incubation, the chicks hatch, but are completely dependent on their parents to bring small fish for food.

The least tern’s colonial nesting behavior means that the chicks stay within the colony and often in the nest so the adults can easily locate the chicks.

The birds in the colony also provide protection from predators by “dive bombing” intruders and pelting them with droppings.

Least tern chicks fledge three weeks after hatching and are known to live 20 years or more.