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The real shorebirds of OCNJ: Beach nesting birds flock together

The real shorebirds of OCNJ: Beach nesting birds flock together

Oyster Catchers on OCNJ

EACH March, after spending the winter soaking up the warmth of tropical Bahamian air, piping plovers start to appear on the beaches and barrier islands that make up the New Jersey coastline.
These small, sand-colored shorebirds can be spotted from Sea Bright to Cape May, and their first order of business after this approximate 1,000-mile journey is not to relax, but to prepare for nesting.

The early bird gets the nest

“Males arrive first, and then females arrive a week or two after,” Emily Heiser explained. “Males set up the territories and, once they successfully attract a female, mid- to late-April is when they really start nesting.”
Emily is a full time assistant biologist with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife. She’s been working with the state’s beach nesting bird project since she started seasonally with the department in 2008. The project monitors and helps protect the federally threatened and state endangered piping plovers. Also, black skimmers, American oystercatchers, least terns, common terns and royal terns. Those that maintain nesting sites on state, county and municipal property.
Monitoring the nesting sites is no simple task. After all, in considering piping plovers alone, there were 118 pairs that nested in New Jersey last year, including 10 in Ocean City, nine in Corson’s Inlet State Park, three in Strathmere and three in the Malibu Beach Wildlife Management Area over the Longport Bridge. Of course, compared with managing and protecting these nesting sites from intrusive humans, curious pets and varied predators, monitoring may very well be the easier part of the job.
“These birds are in an environment that is so dramatically changed from what it used to look like that it’s difficult to imagine that we’ll get to a place where we’ll say we did our job,” Christina “Kashi” Davis, who has been the state DEP Division of Fish and Wildlife principal zoologist for nearly two decades, said.
“We don’t really think of it as their recovery,” she continued. “They are always going to need some human intervention to help them persist.”

Nesting sites.

This human intervention, according to Kashi and Emily, includes symbolic fencing (which is fencing constructed of string connecting PVC pipe or steel posts) with signage.
“It’s delineating that here is the area where nests can be. Please don’t go in there,” Kashi said.
In some cases, the NJDEP team also uses protective enclosures, which have both benefits and detriments for these little feathered friends. Constructed of metal fencing that permits parents to freely go in and out, the enclosures also have netting on top to keep predators at bay.
“It does totally take away any camouflage they have. We think long and hard before we use an enclosure,” Kashi said. “By and large, they still increase hatch success.”
Piping plovers, along with American oystercatchers, are considered territorial nesters. In other words, they want to nest solo, and this means a fenced-off partition on the beach may only be protecting a single nest. This can cause a bit of confusion for beachgoers, especially if they have seen areas roped off for the other beach birds the NJDEP monitors. These birds are colonial – or group – nesters, so it is much easier to see why an area is protected from traipsing feet.

“We’re really cognizant of not having fence up that’s not necessary,” Kashi stressed.
On top of that, piping plover nests are camouflaged so well that even eagle-eyed onlookers may not be able to spot one. They are not what one typically envisions when thinking of a bird’s nest; there is no circular structure built with twigs and dry grass.

Hiding in plain sight

“They’re beach nesting birds because they lay their eggs directly in the sand. When we talk about nest building with beach nesting birds, it’s really about a depression in the sand,” Emily explained, adding sometimes these depressions can be lined with pieces of seashells but are often nondescript – much like the eggs themselves.
“The eggs are cryptic, and they look very much like sand,” Emily said. “That’s why we’re so worried about human disturbance and why we rope these areas off. These eggs are very difficult to see.”
A piping plover clutch includes four eggs once a season, although if they lose a nest, they may lay a second cycle. Nests can be found anywhere from the high tide line to the toe of the dune.
“And hopefully it’s somewhere in a sweet spot in the middle, where it’s not too flood-prone and not where mammalian predators find them,” Kashi said.
It takes 27 to 28 days for a clutch to hatch, and once they do, the baby birds are up and going right away. They leave the nest and don’t return, although parents do help them out at first.
The NJDEP’s goal is to see one and a half chicks survive per brood. However, over the last two years, the piping plover statewide productivity rate was only 0.85 fledglings per pair.
“They’re doing okay,” Emily said, “but we’re not hitting that goal.”

See Also
September/October 2023 Ocean City Magazine

Outreach and education.

Kashi and Emily have six seasonal workers in the monitoring and management of New Jersey’s beach nesting birds along more than 100 miles of shoreline. That’s a lot of work for a team of eight. Which is why the group is dependent on – and incredibly thankful for – dedicated volunteers up and down the coast.
Some volunteers reach out to the department directly to find out how they can help. When Kashi, Emily or another team members run into people, they often inspire them when they take them under their wing to share a bit of beach birding insight.
“We want everybody to get the message and understand,” Kashi said. “A sign just can’t provide that.”
The team is also thankful for the landowners, state park workers and municipalities that support their mission.
“There have been a lot of people along the way who have helped shepherd and steward these birds to where they are now,” Emily added.
Despite the efforts, the piping plover numbers are a bit of a “roller coaster,” according to Kashi. This bird’s survival is more difficult than that of colonial nesters, which have strength in numbers.

A Piping Plover races a fisherman across the beach. Credit: Susan Allen

Dangers lurk everywhere, including the threat of a literal fox in the henhouse – or piping plover house, as it were. There are also coyotes, opossums, skunks, minks and even feral cats that pose threats. Ghost crabs go after the baby chicks.
Even a perfectly obedient, leashed dog can cause major problems for a piping plover, who perceives this dog as a threat. They distract the animal from its brood, which are then open to actual predators.
Dangers come by sky, too. With laughing gulls, fish crows, peregrine falcons and great horned owls hunting eggs, chicks and even adult piping plovers.
“We always say if something can eat a piping plover egg or chick, they eat a piping plover egg or chick,” Kashi said. Then add human disturbance, flooding, storms and the rising sea levels. The piping plover’s plight is anything but easy.
“We have to temper our expectations on what these birds are able to accomplish. The system is so different from what they evolved to live in,” Kashi said.
“We wished they were doing better,” she admitted, “but we’re very proud of the work we’re doing. If we weren’t doing what we’re doing, piping plovers would have blinked off the map in a lot of places.”
Emily agreed with this sentiment.
“It’s also hard to look at the beach as a natural system,” she added. “These are spaces where wildlife lives and are trying to raise their families, so it’s important to remember that.” Photos by Sue Allen. To see more of Sue Allen’s photos – follow her at @What.Sue.Seas on Instagram.

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