Piping Plover, Stone Harbor, New Jersey (Steve Greer / SteveGreerPhotography.com)

Piping Plover, Stone Harbor, New Jersey (Steve Greer / SteveGreerPhotography.com)

by Steve Greer

First published in the December 2005  issue of WildBird magazine

Buffeted by blustery winds, we labor in silence walking across the soft sand beach. A Sharp northeast breeze coming off the ocean keeps any conversations we might be considering to ourselves.   I have a hard time explaining the biting cold to my shocked senses that this is mid-May along the New Jersey coast. Its now just minutes after sunrise and the rim of the orange globe has made its welcome yet predictable contact with the horizon.

Stopping quickly and raising his binoculars, wildlife biologist Vinny Turner scans the horizon looking for any signs of movement. I stop too and train my glasses in the same direction. Off in the distance near the high and rolling surf, I see what looks like a tiny sandstorm skittering along the beach and then surprisingly climbing high into the air. “Watch!” he says.  Watch what, I think to myself.  That sand speck in my 10×40’s moving ever farther up the beach seems more like an illusion than a piping plover. Blending with the beach, the bird’s sand-colored plumage makes it virtually invisible in the sand.

Vinny explains that this whisp of sand swirling in the wind is actually a male piping plover performing his courtship display flight.   “The male makes a very steep ascent, up to 100 feet, and then swoops down very close to the ground and ‘buzzes’ the female,” says Vinny.  “These courtship flights can last for an hour, and once the birds are more tightly ‘pair-bonded’, it can lead to mating.”

A repeated jewel toned ‘peep’ can be heard from the male as he continues his acrobatic loops in the turbulent Atlantic sky.   “That’s good news,” Vinny says as he glances at his watch.  “Good news indeed.”  For at precisely 6:03 am, the odds are very good that these plovers have decided this two-mile stretch of federally protected beach will make a good home in which to raise a family.

Sorry, we’re Closed

Located at the southern tip of Long Beach Island in New Jersey, the Holgate Unit of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge contains more than 600 acres of barrier beach, dunes and tidal saltmarsh.    As a designated National Wilderness Area, the two mile long undeveloped barrier island is one of the last nesting sites available for the piping plover along the Jersey Shore.  Holgate’s territory also includes a remote 1600-acre island called Little Beach.  Lying just offshore from Long Beach Island, this undisturbed three mile long island is an oasis for plovers.  These two areas within the refuge are on the Atlantic Flyway’s most active flight paths and provide sanctuary for over 300 species of birds.  More than fifty species nest at Holgate and Little Beach during the spring and summer seasons, including Ospreys, Least Terns, American Oystercatchers, and Seaside Sparrows.

To boast the highest ratio of nesting birds to nesting capacity, compared to other beaches in New Jersey, Holgate mandates a full beach closure to the general public from April 1 to August 31.  Little Beach is closed year round.  “The piping plover nest on open beaches and coastal inlets, making them extremely vulnerable to any recreational beach use by people, pets, or vehicles,” Vinny says with a protective tone.  Anyone caught entering the beach during this critical nesting season faces fines starting at $50,000 and possible jail time of one year.

Most of Holgate’s neighbors have come to accept the program and applaud the efforts of Vinny to safeguard this stocky little shorebird.  Educational programs to familiarize anglers and refuge visitors about the plover vary from displaying interpretative signage, distributing informational brochures, and producing press releases.   Yet, even after 15 years of beach closures, some in the local fishing community are still frustrated.  Not wanting to be identified, the owner of a local tackle shop still remembers how active the recreational fishing community was before the beach was closed.  “This plover program is for the birds,” he says.  “The day they closed the beach my business dropped 50% and many of the other bait shops went out of business”.

Plover Past

The piping plover nearly disappeared in the early 1900’s when large numbers were slaughtered for the millinery trade – people used the birds and feathers to adorn hats.   Following the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, numbers nearly recovered until the species got into more trouble during the 1940’s.  The post World War II building boom saw many suitable nesting grounds devoured by oceanfront housing.  Any remaining beaches left were quickly consumed by a burgeoning vacationing economy demanding perfectly groomed and raked beaches.

To further complicate matters, the colonization of many of these barrier islands introduced foxes, raccoons and other predators that crossed bridges constructed to carry the beach-going public. With this unrelenting human disturbance and the development of critical beach habitat, the population once again did a nosedive.

In January of 1986, with 800 pairs remaining along the Atlantic Coast, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the species as threatened.  Anne Hecht, biologist and team leader for the US Atlantic Piping Plover Recovery Team, says that those early days were very challenging.  “We quickly realized that the piping plover faced pervasive and unrelenting threats and we had to come up with solutions to not only protect the species but to institutionalize those protection efforts”, says Hecht.

Since that time, the piping plover has become one of the USFWS’s most ambitious and wide-ranging programs ever created to safeguard an imperiled species.  As of January 2002, the Atlantic coast population has rebounded to 1682 pairs.  As part of the Atlantic coast recovery goal, Hecht says the plovers must maintain a population of 2000 breeding pairs for five years, distributed among the four recovery units – Atlantic Canada, 400 pairs; New England, 625 pairs; New York-New Jersey, 575 pairs; Southern (DE, MD, VA, NC), 400 pairs.  Also, the birds must achieve a five-year average productivity rate of 1.5 fledged chicks per pair in each of the four recovery units.  If this criterion is met, a full recovery could be realized by the year 2010.

On a Mission

On this particular day, Vinny has assembled three summer interns in front of the ‘Do Not Enter the Beach’ sign at the refuge entrance.  Studying environmental/natural sciences, these conservation-minded students have come from colleges as far away as Massachusetts and Virginia.  Eager to learn as much as they can about the piping plover, the students will assist Vinny in every aspect of managing this year’s plover program.

Following the nesting survey guidelines published in the Atlantic Coast Piping Plover Recovery Plan, created in 1996 by USFWS, Vinny and his team begin the season by conducting full beach surveys.  At least three times a week, the team searches for any signs of plovers and their activities.  This includes observing territorial or courting behaviors, locating nests and noting any signs of predators.   Later in the season, when the nests have been identified and the eggs begin to hatch, brood activity and movement is monitored at least five times a week.  ”It’s important to be out there as often as possible,” says Vinny.  “This gives us the most accurate account of nesting/fledgling success and explains any causes of nest failure.” 

When at least two eggs are laid, Vinny and his team step into the next phase of their program – predator management.  Wire mesh cages, called exclosures, are constructed and placed around each nest.  The mesh is sized specifically to allow the plovers to pass through the structure, but keep larger predators like foxes and gulls from entering the nest.  While almost guaranteeing successful hatching, the exclosures have also created a unique problem.  The more resourceful predators, like foxes and gulls, have come to recognize that the presence of an exclosure means that there is food inside.  Foxes have been known to dig under the cages, circle around them or try to jump in through the netting on the top.  Gulls will sometimes land on the top and attempt to poke through the netting too.  With such unrelenting harassment, the piping plovers could flush from the nest and abandon their un-hatched eggs.

The Exclosure Pit-Stop

After a detailed briefing describing the logistics of moving and securing the exclosure over the nest and eggs, Vinny and his team carry the structure into place and anchor it into the sand – all within 3 minutes.

Once completed, we all retreat to a safe distance and sit quietly on the beach.  With the sound of the rolling surf behind us, we train our binoculars on the new grid-like architecture.  Hoping the disturbance isn’t too much, we anxiously wait for the pair to return. There is no patience in our silent vigil.

Six minutes later, which feels more like an eternity, we can see the pair circling overhead sizing up the results of this rude invasion on home and community.  Landing within 20 feet of the strange metal grid-work, the male plover does his stylized start and stop run towards the nest.  As he cautiously skirts around the perimeter, we all hold our breath.  After two more laps, the paternal desires to get back on the eggs win over, and he passes through one of the plover sized holes.  Once settled and sitting on the eggs, he cranes his head in all directions surveying this giant metal structure that now looms over him.  With a whispered cheer, we all breathe a sigh of relief and share broad smiles with each other.

As we gather our gear and begin to leave the new site, the cork holding our pent up anticipation is released and we are all bubbly with excitement.  We relive the plover passing through the wire mesh as if we were cheering on an Olympic athlete punching through the finish line of the 100-yard dash.

Vinny points out that in over ten years of installing exclosures at Holgate, not one procedure has ever disturbed a plover to the point of abandoning the nest.  “We’ve had a 100% success rate of plovers accepting the exclosures.  Once installed, it takes on average five to ten minutes for the plovers to return to the nest and resume their shared incubation duties.”

With spirits high, we all advance to the next nesting site, eager to install another exclosure.  As we approach, we see no signs of the breeding adults, but quickly discover the nest has been disturbed.  It’s obvious by the tracks leading to and from the site that a fox has taken the eggs.  As our shock turns to disappointment, Vinny is quick to point out that it’s still early enough in the season that this breeding pair may try to re-nest.

When asked what is the most challenging obstacle to deal with in managing the plovers, Vinny says without hesitation, “predation, predation, predation.  We can greatly reduce the threat of foxes taking the eggs if we can get the exclosures up before they discover the nests.  But even still, it’s no guarantee.”  Vinny explains that in 1998, a fox managed to dig under an exclosure and predate the nest.  “Once he figured out how to dig under the mesh, he continued to destroy eight other nests over a two day period”.

When wildlife officials began trapping the red fox as part of their management program, some in the local community began to voice their opposition.  The fox has long been seen as part of the landscape and a few of the islands’ residents feed them.   With no natural predators and easy access to human food, the fox population has grown in recent years and hunting them has become a controversial issue.  “Reducing the fox population directly increased the number of plover pairs and improved breeding success,” say Vinny.  “Regardless, foxes still managed to destroy one unprotected and one exclosed nest in 2002.”

The Paperwork

At the end of each nesting season, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP), incorporates Holgate’s data into a statewide survey that is then presented to USFWS.  Responsible for monitoring 17 of the 28 New Jersey nesting sites, the ENSP compiles vital statistics like the total number of nesting pairs, the number of successful nests, and the number of chicks fledged from each nesting pair.  A key indicator in determining plover productivity is the number of fledglings per nesting pair.  This is calculated by dividing the number of chicks at least 25 days old (or able to fly greater than 30 feet) by the total number of nesting pairs present.

David Jenkins, Principal Zoologist for the ENSP, says that last year there were 138 nesting pairs in New Jersey – representing a 13% increase compared to 2001 nesting pairs.  “It’s the highest level since intensive surveying began in New Jersey in 1987.”   The state’s better-than average productivity for the past 4 years appears to be contributing to a slow rebuilding of breeding pair numbers.  However, David is guarded with his optimism.  “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he notes.  “Last season we had spells of very hot weather, high winds, and flooding due to severe thunderstorms.  This accounted for an actual decrease in reproductive success.”

For the first time since 1997, the state’s fledge rate actually declined below the 1.24 rate established by the USFWS as the minimum level necessary to maintain the current population and well below the 1.5 rate deemed necessary to ensure a modest growth in population. “Even with all our sophisticated management resources, we still can’t control the weather,” David says.

A Successful Season

It’s now late August and Vinny and his team are busy reviewing and assembling the season’s data.  Many of Holgate’s adult and newly fledged plovers have already begun to take flight for traditional wintering grounds to the southern Atlantic coast.  Some will travel as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula and the West Indies.

As the last three fledglings of the season join the pre-migratory flock, Vinny is there to witness the event.  It’s been a productive summer at the refuge, and even though Vinny is pleased with the 28 new fledglings that have made it this far, he knows the risks associated with their long migration and inexperience make the odds of them returning to this beach next year insurmountable.  Yet, some will.  And as Vinny continues to watch the rapid wing beats of the newest piping plover flying decidingly south, he calls out quietly to the bird, “we’ll be here for you next year – I promise.”

Fun Facts about the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

1.         The 7” shorebird is named for it’s plaintive bagpipe-like peep.

2.         Feeds on marine worms, small crustaceans, insects and other marine invertebrates.

3.         Male builds the nest by scraping a shallow depression in the sand and lining it with fragments of seashells.

4.         Typical clutch of 4 eggs – incubation typically begins when the third egg is laid.

5.         The eggs are oval and cryptically colored – the color of sand with dark specks and marks.

6.         Incubation is 26 – 28 days.

7.         Young are precocial – able to forage for themselves within hours of hatching.

8.         Young are able to fly within 21-35 days

9.         As of January 2002, there was 5938 breeding piping plovers distributed across beaches from Alberta, Canada, to the Atlantic Coast.  Of these, 1465 birds occur in Canada and 4473 birds occur in the central and eastern United States.

10.        The plover’s Atlantic breeding grounds range from South Carolina up to Newfoundland.

References/Resources and Reading List

1.         Ann Hecht, team leader for the US Atlantic Piping Plover Recovery Team   978-443-4325

2.         Vinny Turner, wildlife biologist with the USFWS   609-698-1387

3.         David Jenkins, Principal Zoologist with the ENSP   908-735-9652

4.         Goossen, J.P. and B. Johnson. 1992. A Plover’s Plight

5.         Johnsgard, P.A. 1981. The plovers, sandpipers, and snipes of the world

6.         Sibley, D.A. 2001. The Sibley Guide to Birds

7.         Beans, B.E. and Niles, L. 2003. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of New Jersey

8.         Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds

9.         U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1996 Piping Plover Atlantic coast population revised recovery plan.

10.        U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2000-2001 Status Update: Piping Plover Atlantic coast population.

11.        U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2002 Atlantic Coast Piping Plover Abundance and Productivity Estimates.

12.        New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Wildlife Conservation Performance Report -for the period from September 1, 2001 to August 31, 2002.

13.        USGS January 24, 2002 Press Release

14.        http://www.usgs.gov/public/press/public_affairs/press_releases/pr1547m.html

15.        http://forsythe.fws.gov/PipingPlovers.htm

16.        http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/bnb02.htm

17.        http://plover.fws.gov/