Category Archives: coastal resilience

A new reality for plovers on the Jersey Shore

This story was originally published on our new Medium blog platform

This year’s severe storms underscore the power of nature and the vulnerability of our coasts. While nature can destroy, it can also defend. Supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, we’re working with partners to restore and strengthen natural systems that provide not only habitat for wildlife, but also protection against rising seas and storm surge. This is one in a series of stories highlighting results of our ongoing efforts to build a stronger coast.

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy plowed ashore near Atlantic City, N.J., with sustained winds of 75 miles per hour. In its wake, state officials declared it the most destructive natural disaster in the history of New Jersey. It changed communities dramatically.

There were flooded roads, fallen power lines, and 346,000 damaged homes.

Storm damage along the New Jersey coast after Hurricane Sandy. (USGS)

Natural features of the coastline underwent significant changes too, but in some cases, those changes presented new conservation opportunities that could protect people and wildlife in the face of future storms.

“We were able to identify places where piping plover habitat had been enhanced by the storm,” explained Todd Pover, a senior biologist for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey who has been involved in monitoring the federally threatened shorebird for 25 years. Places like Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, where the storm erased the dunes in a three-quarter mile stretch of beach, creating an open expanse from ocean to bay.

Senior biologist for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey Todd Pover releases a piping plover, a species he has helped monitor for 25 years. (Jim Verhagen)

“It’s what we refer to as an overwash fan,” Pover said. “The most desirable habitat for plover.”

It was a good sign for the future of these birds in New Jersey. Although the number of nesting pairs along the Atlantic coast has nearly doubled since piping plover was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1986 — the species has since been downlisted from from endangered to threatened — New Jersey’s breeding population has failed to launch by comparison. There were 94 nesting pairs in the state in 1986. In 2017, there were 105.

Piping plover with a chick on sandy beach. (USFWS)

More nesting habitat meant the potential for more nesting pairs.

It was also a good sign for the New Jersey shore. Those overwash fans where piping plover like to nest are the product of wind and wave action continually reshaping the coastline, sometimes dramatically as in Sandy. Allowing coastal processes to play out naturally in areas like these helps absorb impacts of future storms.

“In a sense, piping plover represents coastal resilience,” explained Brooke Maslo, assistant professor of ecology at Rutgers University.

But although the creation of habitat gave biologists a reason for hope in the wake of this storm, it also gave them a reason to plan ahead next time. Agencies that typically respond to natural disasters, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, follow standard operating procedures — a sort of playbook that identifies roles, responsibilities, and actions to make sure all the bases are covered.

Assistant professor of ecology at Rutgers University Brooke Maslo focuses on developing science to support habitat for beach-nesting shorebirds, including piping plover, black skimmer, and American oystercatcher, the bird in her hands in this photo.

“There wasn’t a similar protocol for biological conservation,” Maslo said. If there was a way to quickly assess and communicate benefits for endangered species, they could incorporate that into the response process too.

Now, thanks to collaboration between Rutgers and CWF New Jersey, there is.

With support from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hurricane Sandy resilience funding, the partners have developed a standard assessment protocol for identifying opportunities to protect functional beach habitat after big storms based on what they learned from the last one.

They started by comparing nesting habitat for four beach-nesting species — piping plover, American oystercatcher, black skimmer, and least tern — before and after Sandy.

An example of the modeling results showing suitable habitat for American oystercatcher, black skimmer, least terns, and piping plover in Avalon and Stone Harbor, N.J. (Maslo et al. 2016)

“Where did habitat persist? Where was it lost? Where was it newly created? We wanted to be able to quantify habitat changes that occurred as a result of the storm, and to quantify the new habitat areas that could be prioritized for conservation,” Maslo said.

The results have already proven useful as a screening tool when working with communities to develop beach management plans — mandatory for towns that receive federal funding to protect piping plover.

“We suggest what could be the most suitable habitat based on the results, and they give us feedback about what they know to be true about that site on the ground,” Pover said.

It also helps natural resource managers plan for constant change. “The beach will change, so creating set-aside areas interspersed throughout the state gives the birds someplace else to go when it does,” Pover said.

A map showing habitat suitability for piping plover at the Holgate unit of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge after Hurricane Sandy. Any area in color in the above image is considered “suitable”, with warmer colors indicating higher suitability. (Maslo)

It’s like habitat insurance for plover, and it’s clear they will make the most of their safety net. Although most of the new habitat created by Hurricane Sandy was stabilized to pre-storm conditions, resource managers were able to let nature take its course at the site at Forsythe — a wilderness area where no human infrastructure was at stake.


“In the years after Sandy, we went from 12 to 25 pairs at that site,” Pover said. With a secure place to nest, the birds became more productive, with twice as many fledglings as a typical pair in New Jersey.

“Forsythe is a poster child for what could happen if we protect these sites,” he said.

Biologists now know what to look for in potential nesting sites. With the protocol, resource managers, landowners, and town officials can look for these opportunities in their own communities as well.

And because it was developed with input from agencies like NOAA and FEMA that are on the front lines after a natural disaster, the protocol will help factor benefits for wildlife into the existing response process. That will benefit people too. Wildlife tend to good indicators of threats to communities, or as in New Jersey, a sign that they have reason to hope.

How Do Birds Fuel Up for Migration?

Today we’re hearing from Bret Serbin, the Outreach Coordinator for the Long Island Field Office, as she shares how birds prep for long-distance migrations.

As children migrate back into classrooms, their feathered friends are migrating south for the winter.

Geese are among some 350 species of North American birds that migrate long distances for the winter months. Photo by Pixabay

The arrival of fall signals the departure of many migratory birds. Every year, approximately 350 species of North American birds participate in long-distance migration. Many cover thousands of miles to reach their wintering grounds in Central and South America.

Birds as tiny as the piping plover engage in this great migration. The typical adult piping plover weighs less than 2 ounces! Yet these petite plovers travel from their breeding grounds on such Northern shores as Long Island and the Great Lakes to winter in tropical destinations like the Bahamas and Cuba.

A tiny piping plover chick that will need plenty of nutrients to prepare to fly south. Photo by Victoria Lima/ USFWS

So how do these tiny birds fuel up for their long flights?

The key to their endurance lies in wrack, the green seaweed mixture found along the high tide line on most beaches. These giant green clumps or dried plant material may seem unappealing to humans, but for many migratory shorebirds, wrack’s a snack!


An example of beach wrack. An abundance like this can feed lots of birds and other beach creatures!

Wrack is mostly composed of sea grass that comes loose and washes ashore with the tide. Along the way, it can collect a variety of other substances. Once ashore, this rich organic mixture becomes a habitat for a number of creatures, including plants and insects. In fact, about 40 percent of invertebrate species that live on beaches depend upon wrack.

These invertebrates serve as one of the primary food sources for birds like the piping plover. The accumulation of wrack is crucial in providing this food source since the unstable conditions of the sand and the waves make it nearly impossible for plants to grow or insects to live along the shoreline.

Those big piles may not look like much to the average beachgoer, but they provide a beachy buffet for birds en route to their winter homes.

If you’re looking to help send the birds off on a successful journey, working to maintain this important food source is a great way to start. Beach grooming and driving pose serious threats to wrack, as these activities can remove wrack from its natural place on the shore or crush this delicate ecosystem and all the organisms it hosts.

Beach raking like this deprives shorebirds of a crucial source of nutrients. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

If you live in a beach community, encourage your neighbors and beach managers to minimize beach raking in order to protect this important resource. And no matter if you’re a beach bum or a landlocked bird lover, you can help educate others about the importance of this material so that the birds can snack on wrack wherever they go.

The birds’ seasonal departure reminds us to help ensure their safe return year after year. The piping plover, for instance, has experienced such population decline as to be listed as federally endangered in the Great Lakes and threatened on the Atlantic Coast and in the Northern Great Plains.

Given its low numbers, a piping plover in flight is a very welcome sight! Photo by Steven Tucker/USFWS

With this in mind, it’s important to help the birds get fortified for their long journeys so that they can return to us in the spring.

How Natural Defenses Can Help Us Prepare for Hurricane Season


NASA Earth Observatory, natural color image of Hurricane Sandy. (Credit: Robert Simmon with data courtesy of the NASA/NOAA GOES Project Science team)

Hurricane season began June 1, but these days it seems like we’re on storm watch year-round.

Most hurricanes and tropical storms occur between June and November, but in recent years storms have emerged earlier in the season. And Nor’easter season (September to April) can pack a powerful punch as well, as we saw this past winter when storm after storm pummeled the East Coast with heavy rains, snow, strong winds and high storm surges.

After the catastrophes wrought by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, and the intense Nor’easters that followed, coastal residents are rightfully feeling nervous as we look toward a new hurricane season.

Aerial photo of Casino Pier amusement park in Seaside Heights after Hurricane Sandy Photo credit Greg ThompsonUSFWS

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, the Casino Pier Amusement Park in Seaside Heights, N.J. is left in shambles in shambles. (Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS)

So what can we do to help coastal communities prepare for extreme weather? One strategy is to work with nature to build a stronger coast.

A stronger coast is one where marshes act like sponges to absorb rising water; where free-flowing rivers help reduce flooding to nearby communities; and where oyster reefs and other living shorelines buffer coastal zones from wave erosion.

It’s a coast built to last over time, serving as a natural defense in the face of storms. It improves water and air quality while generating recreational opportunities and ecotourism dollars. It provides a home to wildlife in the marshes and connected rivers that feed into them.

And the good news is, we are well on our way to building such a coast.

Coastal marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS

Coastal marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. (Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS)

After Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set out to restore and rebuild coastal areas better than before. In partnership with other agencies and groups, the Service implemented more than 70 projects up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Much of this work has been completed, and the Service is now monitoring the projects to see how they stand up against future storms and how they benefit people and wildlife.

We’re already seeing promising results at many project sites. Fish are returning to rivers where dams have been removed. Restored marshes and beaches are holding up under heavy rains, winds and snow. Protected areas are buffering communities from flood damages. And each project teaches us a little bit more.

Mantoloking, NJ aerial view after Hurricane Sandy CREDIT Greg Thompson (2)

An aerial view of coastal damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in Mantoloking, NJ. Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS


Here are a few of the projects making a difference in communities in the Northeast:

  • New Jersey: Wreck Pond Restoration Withstands Powerful Nor’easters
    A new box culvert at Wreck Pond in coastal New Jersey is improving water quality and fish passage while reducing flood risk to nearby communities. Despite numerous Nor’easters this winter, Wreck Pond did not overflow into the surrounding neighborhoods and no properties were damaged. Fish are returning, particularly alewives, which used to migrate into Wreck Pond by the hundreds to spawn in the pond’s tributaries.
  • Rhode Island: The Pawcatuck River Runs Free
    Removal of White Rock and Bradford dams on the 34-mile Pawcatuck River is helping wildlife and people in Rhode Island, where commercial fishing and water-related recreation contribute billions of dollars to local economies. Now fish can migrate up the river for the first time in centuries. Early surveys have found shad, blueback herring and alewife above the site of the former White Rock Dam, which was once all but impassable. Restoration of the river is also leading to more recreation opportunities, especially for paddlers and wildlife enthusiasts, and reduced risk of flooding to nearby communities.
  • Delaware: A Dramatic Recovery at Prime Hook
    Beach and marsh restoration at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware has produced incredible results in just two years. Hundreds of acres of open water have been transformed into healthy stands of salt marsh grasses, and the refuge saw its first piping plover nests. The restored marsh buffers private property and public infrastructure such as roads from storm surge. Already, residents of the adjacent communities have benefited, with no road closures or impact on agricultural areas due to flooding from Nor’easters. Fishing, crabbing, birding, hiking and other recreational opportunities have also improved.
  • Massachusetts: Restored Mill River Reduces Flood Risk
    The near-failure of a dam on the Mill River in 2005 cost the city of Taunton more than $1.5 million in emergency response and flooding damage, but it also energized a local movement to restore the river and prevent similar crises in the future. Since then, the Service has helped remove both the Whittenton and West Britannia dams and install a fish ladder, allowing river herring and other migratory fish to once again migrate to their historical spawning grounds.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: USFWS)

Recent studies also show that natural defenses make good economic sense. One study found that wetlands prevented $625 million in additional damage during Hurricane Sandy. Another found that green infrastructure (nature-based projects, such as wetlands restoration) provides $3.50 or more in benefits for every $1 spent. Gray infrastructure, man-made projects such as seawalls and levees, often doesn’t earn back its initial investment.

Natural defenses won’t stop the next storms from coming. But they can help minimize the damage, and do a lot of good along the way. These natural defenses, used alone or in combination with gray infrastructure, can help communities recover more quickly from storms.

Let’s make natural defenses a part of every community’s preparedness plan. Is your community ready?