Holgate Is for Birds

Sep 14, 2016

To the Editor:

I understand the arguments for replenishment to save property, but what is good for people is not what is good for plovers. As someone who loves LBI, but also spends nearly every day of the summer with piping plovers on Holgate, I would like to explain why this is true.

Piping plovers in New Jersey are a mostly overwash-obligate species. That means that their first choices for nesting locations are areas where the vegetation has been recently scoured by waves that have actively washed over the beach from oceanside to bayside. 

The Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge has not always been a stronghold for piping plovers in New Jersey. In 2010, the Holgate unit supported as few as 10 pairs of piping plovers compared to 25 pairs in 2015 and 2016. In only five years, the number of pairs of plovers more than doubled at Holgate, largely due to the impacts of Superstorm Sandy. These overwash areas created access to moist substrate habitats such as bayside sand flats and mudflats, which provide more prey items than any other habitat types for adults and chicks to forage. 

Vegetation encroachment threatens access to this bayside foraging habitat. Piping plover chicks need to feed as soon as they hatch out of the egg, and if they cannot walk through the vegetation to access this habitat, they may not have adequate food resources to survive. Additionally, vegetation provides cover habitat for predators, adding another threat to the survival of the eggs and chicks.

Barrier islands are dynamic ecosystems. They are designed by nature to be washed over, eroded, to have new inlets created, old inlets filled, sand built up, and vegetation re-grown. This is a natural process for which piping plovers depend, and there are very few places remaining in the state of New Jersey where natural processes are allowed to take place. 

The Atlantic coast population of piping plovers was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. Since the listing, the coast-wide population has experienced a 140 percent increase, yet despite intensive management that aligns with recovery plan guidelines, the population of piping plovers nesting in New Jersey has seen no increase in abundance since the species listing. 

Places such as Holgate are special because they are the few areas in the state where piping plovers are thriving. They offer us a chance at recovery because they are allowed to be a balanced, natural ecosystem. Please advocate for allowing Holgate to function as a natural barrier beach, not as a replenished, human-engineered ecosystem that only provides benefits to people and not to the birds. The birds need the overwash areas, much more than humans need Holgate to be replenished.

Michelle L. Stantial

Syracuse, N.Y.

The writer is a doctoral student at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

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