Yesterday was a rare spring Sunday. The weather was beautiful from start to finish, with plenty of sun, blue skies, warm temperatures, and breezy southerly winds. A perfect day to take a beach walk at Sandy Hook, part of Gateway National Recreation Area and located at the entrance to New York Harbor.
It was an interesting walk to say the least that reveled more than just the usual pieces of flotsam and jetsam washed up by the tides. First of all, the Piping plovers I observed were still busy incubating eggs on a nest.
Usually by the third week of May, little Piping plovers begin hatching out of eggs around New York Harbor. Eggs hatch in about 25 days, and cute downy young are soon able to follow parents in foraging for marine worms, tiny crustaceans, and insects along the edge of the beach.
Timing seems to be a tad late this year, maybe due to chilly, wet spring weather that might have delayed nesting. Possibly birds are arriving a little later too?
Even stranger was the sight of seeing petite Piping plovers nesting under large metallic enclosures. It looked like small birds living in very large birdcages in the middle of an open beach. Sort of like a weird French art film.
Yet those odd-looking birdcages play an important role in the survival of Piping plovers. The little stout birds would not be able to outlive the ever-increasing gauntlet of prowling predators that continually seem to be after them, from hungry raccoons and foxes, to bullying gulls, coyotes, and crows, to sneaky Norway rats and feral cats. Greater amounts of garbage left on beaches, including candy wrappers and soda cans, attracts more and more predators, including foxes, skunks, raccoons, crows, and gulls.
Large gulls and crows can terrorize breeding pairs of piping plovers, causing them to abandon nests. Although plovers may nest again if eggs are destroyed, young raised later in the season often don't survive as well as those raised in May and June.
A special circular pen, called an “exclosure” made out of metal mesh fencing helps to keep predators out. Its holes are large enough, though, for plovers, both adults and chicks, to move through as they please.
Metal cages may seem like a strange sight on a beach, but these enclosures help to stop the decline in Piping plover populations. According to the National Park Service, “The main factor affecting nest failure was predation (44% of failed nests). Predators, especially crows and coyotes have a significant impact on the reproductive success of piping plovers, least terns, and other shorebirds nesting at the national seashore. Many populations of predators have increased due to their ability to take advantage of human-provided foods. This has resulted in unnaturally-high predation pressure to nests, chicks, and adults.”
Usually starting sometime in April, wildlife biologists with the State of New York, New Jersey, or the National Park Service (depending on the management of the shoreline) will survey beaches to locate nesting Piping plovers. Once a nest is found, placing a wire enclosure over the nest will protect it. This provides protection from predators, while allowing the plovers to come and go for feeding.
Signs are also posted near the nesting site to inform people to keep out. Excessive human disturbance can cause Piping plover parents to abandon the nest, exposing eggs or chicks to the summer sun and predators. Interruption of feeding may stress juvenile birds during critical periods in their development.
These adorable little shorebirds need all the help they can get. The Piping plover became a protected species under the Endangered Species Act on January 10, 1986. Along the Atlantic Coast it is designated as threatened, which means the population would continue to decline if not protected. The Endangered Species Act provides penalties for taking, harassing or harming the Piping plover.
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