Spring Storms Factor in Declining Piping Plover Nesting Population

Sep 13, 2017
Courtesy of: Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge Rebeca Linhart of the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (left) and Abby Gormley, Edwin B. Forsythe summer intern.

Humans aren’t the only species who enjoy the solitude of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Holgate at the southernmost tip of Long Beach Island. With its barrier beaches, dunes and tidal salt marshes, the refuge is one of New Jersey’s last remaining pristine island areas, and ideal for piping plovers, a federally threatened and state-endangered beach-nesting bird.

However, a series of early spring storms washed away some of the nests in the Holgate sand, and eggs were lost, according to Rich Albers, deputy refuge manager. Re-nesting was a big factor in the decrease in the number of piping plovers this year, he noted. Holgate saw just 44 plovers, which produced 23 fledglings, for a productivity number of 1.05 chicks per nesting pair.

In 2016, volunteers and scientists counted 77 piping plovers in Holgate and 55 nests that fledged more than 30 chicks, and that was before the season ended. The piping plover egg incubation period is 27 to 28 days with birds fledging 25 days after hatching.

“Last year was better, but we still had a good year. It wasn’t great, but it was still good,” Albers said.

“Superstorm Sandy removed a lot of vegetation from the beach,” Albers explained, noting that the numbers of piping plovers nesting in the area in the years immediately following the storm were high. “It will be interesting to see what happens next year. Large storm events tend to be beneficial.”

Beach-nesting birds prefer sparsely vegetated areas, which are flat so they can see predators approaching, and the fledglings can negotiate their way to the surf for their first meals.

“To a certain extent, isolation makes them more comfortable,” Albers said, adding the piping plovers aren’t going to nest if they don’t feel secure in their surroundings. Limiting the human danger, with volunteers and scientists monitoring the nesting sites on an almost daily basis during the season, is one way to ensure the piping plovers’ security. Another, he said, is to use enclosures around the nest sites, to keep out the most notorious animal predators, raccoons and foxes, which are always a concern. “We know more or less in a day or two whether a nest has been disturbed.”

Every year on April 1, the refuge is closed to the public until after Labor Day to support the beach-nesting bird program. Male piping plovers fly over a breeding territory with a series of unhurried wing beats and a call note that alerts other piping plovers. On the ground, the male approaches the female, standing straight with his neck stretched, and quickly stamps his feet.

Other regular beach-nesting species in Holgate are the state-special concern American oystercatchers and state-endangered black skimmers and least terns. This year, Holgate saw just a pair of black skimmers with no fledglings, approximately 150 pairs of least terms with 20 fledglings, and 18 pairs of American oystercatchers with two fledglings.

Gina G. Scala



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