Federal scientists hope that a new app can help a population of threatened shorebirds take flight.
The U.S. Geological Survey just unveiled iPlover, its first data collection smartphone application, which dozens of government and independent scientists are now using to track where piping plovers choose to live.
Rob Thieler, a USGS scientist who was the lead developer of iPlover, said data gathered by the app over the next few years could help scientists understand where to focus their restoration efforts. It also could show how to aid other beach dwellers threatened by coastal erosion — animals, plants and even humans.
“We think this is going to have broad applications,” Thieler said.
The app lets scientists measure how the birds respond to changes in the land where they choose to nest. It also allows researchers to exchange synchronized data in real time, so they won’t need to muddle through different data-collection formats.
Researchers piloted the Web app at 12 sites last year before deciding to expand the project to include many more federal, nongovernmental organizations and state groups. They also introduced iPhone and Android versions of the app.
Now, Thieler said, the piping plover’s nesting range is almost entirely covered by app users.
“We have very rapidly gone to a very full scale with respect to the breeding range of the Atlantic piping plover population, which is North Carolina to Maine,” he said.
Known for its distinctive call, the stocky, sandy-colored piping plover has been listed as a threatened species along the East Coast since 1986. Numbers have since rebounded, but climate change still poses a threat to the low, open beaches and inlets where the birds like to roost.
The App Store is flush with birding apps — Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID, Audubon Birds Pro, not to mention Angry Birds. But Thieler said his creation isn’t meant for the average birding enthusiast. The plovers are hardwired to like very specific habitats, many of which are blocked off to the public.
“This is not intended to be a citizen-science app,” Thieler said. He added, “If you are not one of the people who is trained and vetted and authorized to approach these birds for research or monitoring purposes and they change their behavior or abandon a nest, that is considered a ‘take’ under the Endangered Species Act.”
Thieler, who calls himself a geologist-turned-bird-scientist, said he and another colleague got involved in the project when the Fish and Wildlife Service asked for their expertise on exploring how sea level and coastal change could impact the bird’s nesting grounds.
“We, at the time, knew nothing about plovers,” he said. “But we knew this was something that was very interesting.”
But now, he said, he has a greater appreciation for how his research into coastal erosion affects our feathered friends.
“It’s been a very interesting and fun collaboration,” he said.