Category Archives: National wildlife refuges

Weathering the storm: piping plovers flock to Long Island beaches

If you live in the Northeast, you won’t soon forget 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. But there is one storm story you may have yet to hear.

Along some areas of the Long Island coast, strong winds and waves washed over the beaches, spreading out sand to create the sandy, open spaces that the island’s winged residents rely on for nesting. For biologists, the restored beach habitat was a sign of hope for the threatened piping plover, whose numbers had been precariously low in New York.

An example of an overwash area on Fire Island Wilderness area Photo credit: USFWS

Researchers from Virginia Tech investigated the effects of Sandy on Long Island with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, Suffolk County, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In comparing 2010 and 2015 plover habitat areas and population abundances, they found a substantial increase in suitable habitat and a modest population increase. Notably, more than half of the new habitat on Fire Island and Westhampton Island was created during the storm, with the rest of the habitat engineered by the Corps.

Outreach Coordinator Bret Serbin with Long Island Field Office biologists at the Fire Island Wilderness area. From left: Steve Papa, Kerri Dikun, Bret Serbin, and Steve Sinkevich. Photo credit: USFWS

This increase in available habitat likely contributed to the 40.6 percent increase in plover population on Fire Island and Westhampton Island since the hurricane. This boost is a welcome addition for the bird, which faces numerous threats and is struggling to reach the goal of 575 pairs set out in the federal recovery plan. The researchers also found that the number of nesting pairs in the area has increased over the past 5 years, and they are optimistic that 2018 will be a year of continued productivity for the birds in the area.

Since piping plover chicks have to forage for themselves, plovers like to build nests on flat open beaches close to the shoreline where they have easy access to the tiny invertebrates that they feed on. By creating a number of new overwashes and breaches, Sandy helped expand the territory where plovers and their chicks can live, eat, and grow before their winter journey.

A rare sight: an abundance of piping plovers! Photo credit: USFWS

The reaction from the local plover population has been telling: among new and returning plovers at each beach in the study area, more than 80 percent chose the newly-created habitats to build their nests. And the new plovers exclusively nested in these new areas, completely avoiding the less favorable habitat that existed before Sandy’s contributions. The Hurricane Sandy beach redesign seems popular among the plovers.

This new habitat inches the birds one step closer towards recovery. But what the researchers call a “modest increase” in population is still a long way off from the desired plover population on Long Island. And since much of the newly created habitat is not in protected areas, only time will tell how long and how much the birds will really be able to enjoy these new spaces. To recover this species and others that depend on storm-generated habitat, we must look for solutions that balance shorebird habitat creation while protecting human infrastructure so that we can both weather the storm.

15 year-old Georgia Roberts takes a bow as a national qualifier

One day of practice at the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge led to a year of success for 15 year-old Georgia Roberts, a White Knoll High School athlete and qualifier for archery National’s. Roberts began shooting with the Refuge Complex Administrative Support Assistant Stacie Allison four years ago, justifying that one day at a National Wildlife Refuge can spark genuine interest and passion in the life of a teenager.

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“I had always seen the movies and the cool archers on tv and thought, ‘oh that looks pretty cool,’” Roberts began to tell me, “but I never actually tried it until that day.”

It was 2010 and Roberts was staying with her grandparents during a hot, summer month close to the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge. Beverley, Georgia’s grandmother, had a close relationship to Stacie Allison at the complex, and asked if Allison would be willing to give Georgia and her cousin Tessa a lesson, too. “Georgia was a natural and caught on right away” said Allison, “An impressive display of caring from someone that young.”

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This September, Roberts will be going into her Sophomore year of high school and into her second year on the high school archery team. In March, the Archery team at White Knoll High School qualified as the only public school to compete in Nationals this year.

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Unfortunately, due to large transportation costs and rising scheduling issues, the team was unable to compete. “We have to raise money on our own. To do that, we’ve hosted tournaments.” Most of the financial success from the fundraisers come from parents, family, and friends.

Roberts has not since visited the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge, but still recalls that first day of practice perfectly. Roberts is the epitome of how just one day, one session, and one hit can spark an uncharted passion in people of all ages.

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“I guess I haven’t seen [the Hunger Games] in a while, but I bet I could critique everything she was doing wrong if I watched it again” said Roberts about The Hunger Games series’ protagonist Katniss Everdeen. She continued, “I do like Hawkeye though, he’s pretty cool.”

The Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge consists of three refuges: The Refuge Complex is located at the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck refuge, while the Occoquan Bay refuge and the Featherstone refuge complete the remainder. To get involved with a National Wildlife Refuge complex program click here.

Using Sight for Song: A Deaf Birder’s Life Hack

If you’re an avid birdwatcher, nature lover, or even just enjoy going for a stroll near your home, you’d probably be thrilled to see a yellow warbler whizz by or hear its cheerful “sweet- sweet- sugary- sweet” song ring through the trees.

Yellow warbler, photo by Tom Teztner

While many of us enjoy wildlife encounters like these, the experience isn’t the same for everyone.

Generally, avid birders and ornithologists rely on calls and songs to identify nearby birds just as much as they use their sight. But for birders who are deaf or hard of hearing, birding by sound can prove a difficult, or even impossible, task. In an effort to overcome this challenge, Ron Popowski – who is deaf – and former U.S. Forest Service colleague in northern Arizona, Hans – who is hearing- have developed a helpful life hack to help deaf birders better locate birds for identification.

With a series of hand signals and motions, Hans tips Ron off to a bird when it vocalizes. With his knowledge of ecosystems and bird behavior, Ron is able to deduce the general habitat and locate a bird for a species-specific identification. This way, Ron can still enjoy the same challenge that comes with identifying birds without simply being told what it is.

For example, Hans may hear a “tap tap tap tap” in the woods and therefore signal “woodpecker” for Ron. Ron can then determine the general habitat, height, and possible direction to visually locate the woodpecker. From there, he can determine it is a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

The spelling and ASL sign for ‘woodpecker’ video by ASL Stem Forum

This silent code proved beneficial for data collection when Ron and Hans created it in the 1990s. The pair were working on several analysis areas in Coconino National Forest to collect baseline data, and their code allowed Ron to expand his data collection to record bird species. They worked in diverse habitats, including treeline and tundra, ponderosa pine and spruce-fir forests, pinyon-juniper, chaparral, grasslands, desert scrub, riparian, and marsh and open water.  Some of the species included Clark’s nutcracker, doves, poorwill, warblers, wrens, sandhill crane, Northern goshawk, and Mexican spotted owl.

It’s helpful to remember that everyone’s needs are different. Some alternatives to Ron’s Manual may be more beneficial for birders with limited hearing. For example, bird songs are often given phonetic spellings or mnemonics, to assist hearing or hard of hearing birders alike to remember and identify songbirds. To some the red-eyed vireo may sound like it’s saying “look up, over here, see me, up here.” Giving words to notes could help some to better distinguish sounds.

Additional tools are available for those with high-register hearing loss, or presbycusis. While costly, devices like SongFinder are available to lower the pitch of bird calls without slowing them down, allowing a birder to detect its pattern and rhythm in a lower, audible register.

We are always looking for more tips and tricks that can be useful for recreationists to enjoy the outdoors. If you have helpful tools or strategies that improve your experiences in nature, we’d love to learn from you. Please comment and share!

Ron Popowski is Endangered Species and Conservation Planning Assistance Supervisor at the New Jersey Field Office.