Twenty miles east of New York City, on Long Island, over six million people every year head to Jones Beach State Park for some fun in the sun. This popular beach also happens to be one of the most popular spots in New York State for the endangered Piping plover to nest. The Piping plover is a small, sandy colored shorebird with yellow/orange legs, and a black band strapped across its neck. After they arrive, they chow down on a diet made up of mostly invertebrates (think insects and mollusks), and make their homes at the base of the dunes. Unfortunately, due to extensive hunting in the 19th century for their feathers along with increased beach recreation post-World War II their populations have seen a steep decline. Plover stewards are tasked with reversing this downward trend and protecting these shorebirds from the bevy of visitors. Every summer, the conservation efforts begin with the construction of a “symbolic fence.”
Symbolic fence is erected all along the beach in areas where plovers nest and is a simple combination of metal posts, orange string, and orange flagging. Once the fences are built and the plovers arrive, it’s up to the plover stewards to find the nests. Unlike a songbird, piping plovers nest on the ground in round, shallow depressions called “scrapes.” To create a scrape, male plovers walk around the dunes finding locations they would like to nest, then simply scoop out the sand with their feet. They make several scrapes, so females have a variety of spots to choose as a nest. Once they choose a scrape, the plovers will line the pit with shell fragments to reinforce the ground where the eggs will be laid. Plovers will leave and return to their scrape via the same routes forming “Highways.”
Plover stewards use observable highways along with sightings of broken wing displays to determine how close they are to a nest. Plovers feign being injured to draw attention away from their nest and chicks. They lure the predator to follow them by stealthily walking out of the nest and pretending to have a broken wing. As they parade, they tempt the potentially voracious animals away from the nest, only to fly away at the last second before being captured! Even though they use sneaky tactics, the plovers still need some help. So, every year plover stewards build shelters called exclosures around the nests which keep out hungry animals. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry is conducting a study to assess the effectiveness of exclosures. They do this by comparing predation of exclosed nests versus non- exclosed nests.
Come June, the exclosures become obsolete as the eggs begin to hatch. Newly hatched chicks can’t fly and are still in danger of being crushed by vehicles driving on the beach. Public vehicles are therefore not allowed on the beach during this time. At State Parks there is still a need for park vehicles to travel the beach for daily tasks, such as trash removal and maintaining the mounds of sand in front of the lifeguard chairs. Plover stewards escort the vehicles to help keep the chicks safe. It takes chicks between 28-35 days to fledge, or to learn how to fly. During this time the chick will transform from looking like a cotton ball on sticks to an almost identical version of its parents.
Long walks on the beach watching these plovers grow- up may sound glorious, but there are some occupational hazards to being a plover steward. During a plover survey walk it’s impossible to avoid another shorebird nesting in the dune habitat: the threatened Least tern. Unlike plovers, Least terns guard their nests viciously: dive-bombing, squawking, and even defecating on anything that comes near including a plover steward. Yet there are strategies that a plover steward can use to happily coexist with the Least terns! These are including but not limited to walking slowly and confidently and placing a long stick in his/her backpack.
By the end of August, the plovers along with the Least terns will fly thousands of miles south for their annual migration. For many plover stewards it is hard to see these tiny shorebirds leave after months of meticulous observation. But they will be back next year!
Learn more about piping plovers in New York:
Post by Keegan Mobley and Allison Philpott, Jones Beach State Park Plover Stewards and Student Conservation Association members