Be careful where you walk now on the beach. There is something moving quickly back and forth that is the color of sand. It roams along the edge of a number of ocean-side beaches near Lower New York Bay. It is a little pale shorebird with orange legs, but also a yellowish bill with a black tip, and a single black neck band, and a narrow black band across its forehead.
I am talking about Piping Plovers. They are a small plover weighing just a few ounces and only about five and half inches in length. It’s a small, sandy-colored bird that can easily be overlooked as it blends in so well with the pale surroundings of the open, sandy habitat on outer beaches where it feeds and nests.
There are certainly many people who are unfamiliar with this characteristic shorebird. Out of sight is truly out of mind.
Yet, we need to learn to share the beach with nesting Piping Plovers, and we need to do it soon. The bird is listed as endangered in both New York State and New Jersey, and is listed as threatened by US Fish and Wildlife.
Piping Plovers were once a common shorebird along the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes during much of the 19th century, but nearly disappeared due to excessive hunting for the millinery trade. Following passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, numbers recovered to a 20th Century peak which occurred during the 1940s. Soon after population began to decline again due to recreational use of beaches and the increase in residential and commercial development.
Now the little Piping Plover is having a hard time trying to raise a family along the beach. Commercial, residential, and recreational development have decreased the amount of coastal habitat available for piping plovers to nest and feed. Pets, especially dogs, may harass the birds. Developments near beaches provide food that attracts increased numbers of predators such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Domestic and feral cats are also very efficient predators of plover eggs and chicks. Increased sea level rise also contributes to the decline of Piping Plovers from higher than normal storm tides that may inundate or flood nests, or drown chicks.
At Sandy Hook last year, as reported by the Monmouth County Audubon Society, there were 49 nesting pairs of Piping Plovers. This was four more pairs than in 2010. The pairs laid a total of 225 eggs, an increase from the 175 eggs laid in 2010. All sounds good, right? Yet, in spite of this early achievement, only 152 eggs hatched and only 50 percent of the hatchlings actually fledged for a total of 77 fledglings. By the end of the breeding season in August, this number represented a lower figure than in 2010, which had 79 birds fledged.
Recent surveys have estimated the Atlantic Coast population of Piping Plovers at approximately 800 breeding pairs, about 200 of which nest in New York State. For a small bird, its problems are many.
What can you do to help protect the Piping Plover. According to the National Park Service:
– Respect all areas fenced or posted for protection of wildlife.
– Do not approach or linger near Piping Plovers or their nests.
– If pets are permitted on beaches used by plovers, keep your pets leashed. Keep cats indoors.
– Don’t leave or bury trash or food scraps on beaches. Garbage attracts predators which may prey upon piping plover eggs or chicks.
Everyone can help by at least being alert while walking on the beach this spring and summer, and respecting the plover’s nesting area. In the end, sharing the beach with little birds doesn’t seem too much to ask to ensure that an endangered species continues to exist near Lower New York Bay.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/