Demographic Responses of Least Terns and Piping Plovers to the 2011 Missouri River Flood—A Large-Scale Case Study

Open-File Report 2018-1176
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
By: , and 



A catastrophic flood event on the Missouri River system in 2011 led to substantial changes in abundance and distribution of unvegetated sand habitat. This river system is a major component of the breeding range for interior Least terns (Sternula antillarum; “terns”) and piping plovers (Charadrius melodus; “plovers”), both of which are Federally listed ground-nesting birds that prefer open, unvegetated sand and gravel nesting substrates on sandbars and shorelines. The 2011 flood inundated essentially all tern and plover nesting habitat during 2011, but it had potential to generate post-flood habitat conditions that favored use by terns and plovers in subsequent years. We compared several tern and plover demographic parameters during the pre-flood and post-flood periods on the Garrison Reach and Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota, to determine how this event influenced these species (both species on the Garrison Reach, and plovers only on Lake Sakakawea). The principal parameters we measured (nest survival, chick survival, and breeding population) showed spatial and temporal variation typical of opportunistic species occupying highly variable habitats. There was little evidence that nest survival of least terns differed between pre- and post-flood. During 2012 when habitat was most abundant on the Garrison Reach and Lake Sakakawea, piping plover nest survival was higher than in any other year in the study, but returned to rates comparable to pre-flood years in 2013. Chick survival for terns on the Garrison Reach and plovers on Lake Sakakawea showed a similar pattern to plover nest survival, with the 2012 rate exceeding all other years of the study, and the remaining pre-flood and post-flood years being generally similar but slightly higher in post-flood years. However, plover chick survival on the Garrison Reach in 2012 was similar to pre-flood years, and increased annually thereafter to its highest rate in 2014. Although wide confidence intervals precluded firm conclusions about flood effects on breeding populations, the general pattern suggested lower populations of plovers but higher populations of least terns immediately after the flood. Despite near total absence of breeding habitat on either study area during the flood of 2011, populations of both species persisted after the flood due to their propensity to disperse and/or forgo breeding for at least a year. Tern and plover populations have similarly persisted and recovered after the flood, but their mechanisms for persistence likely differ. Data on tern dispersal is generally lacking, but they are thought to show little fidelity to their natal grounds, have a propensity to disperse potentially long distances, and routinely forgo breeding until their second year, thus a lost opportunity to breed in a given area may be easily overcome. Plovers exhibit stronger demographic ties to the general area in which they previously nested, yet they occupy much broader nesting habitat features than terns and exploit three major landforms in the Dakotas (free-flowing rivers, reservoir shorelines, and wetland shorelines). Consequently, dispersal to and from non-Missouri River habitats and potential to exploit non-traditional habitats likely sustained the Northern Great Plains population through the flood event. Terns and plovers normally occupy similar habitats on the Missouri River and both species experienced similar loss of a breeding season due to the flood. Persistence of these populations after the flood underscores the importance of understanding their unique demographic characteristics and the context within which the Missouri River operates.

Suggested Citation

Anteau, M.J., Sherfy, M.H., Shaffer, T.L., Swift, R.J., Toy, D.L., and Dovichin, C.M., 2019, Demographic responses of least terns and piping plovers to the 2011 Missouri River flood—A large-scale case study: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2018–1176, 33 p.,

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

ISSN: 0196-1497 (print)

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Objectives
  • Study Areas
  • Sampling
  • Field Methods
  • Data Analysis
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Demographic responses of least terns and piping plovers to the 2011 Missouri River flood—A large-scale case study
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2018-1176
DOI 10.3133/ofr20181176
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Description Report: viii, 33 p.; Data Release
Country United States
State North Dakota
Other Geospatial Garrison Reach, Lake Sakakawea
Online Only (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details