Category Archives: Strong After Sandy

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 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?

A Passion for Piping Plovers: Annie Larsen, 2017 Refuge Biologist of the Year Award Recipient

Today we recognize Annie Larsen, a wildlife biologist at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, who is the recipient of our regional Refuge Biologist of the Year Award. Annie has worked for the Service for 26 years and has spent the majority of her career at Prime Hook.

The award recognizes Annie’s dedicated efforts in the spring and summer of 2017 to document and protect piping plovers on the refuge’s recently restored barrier beach. The restoration was part of a $38-million project supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery that also rebuilt 4,000 acres of tidal marsh. The project enhances habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife and makes the coast more resilient to future storms and sea-level rise.

I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Annie and learning about her work.  Here’s what she had to say.

Annie Larsen_Credit_ Maddy Lauria_The News Journal

Annie Larsen, Credit: Maddy Lauria/The News Journal

Prime Hook NWR is in a unique position to help piping plovers, which are listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Why is this?

Delaware has so little undeveloped barrier beach habitat left. The State manages some areas, but they are not as strict as we are. The intensive management we do on the refuge in closing the beach and prohibiting a lot of activities gives the birds a chance.

We also were fortunate to receive the Hurricane Sandy funding to create almost two miles of beautiful beach strand parallel to the Delaware Bay. It’s very inviting to migrating and nesting shorebirds and spawning horseshoe crabs, and unusual for our location and situation.

back barrier salt marsh at Prime Hook_usfws_flickr_2013

One of the back barrier salt marshes at Prime Hook NWR, Credit: USFWS

Tell us about your first time seeing piping plovers on the refuge after Hurricane Sandy. What was going through your head? What made these sightings unusual?

The tidal marsh restoration project was still underway in 2016. The spectacular thing was, as we restored the beach —  lo and behold, we saw American oystercatchers and least terns setting up territories and nests! Then, along came a piping plover, and we said “no way.”

I was always told piping plovers wouldn’t nest on a beach with little wave action like on the Delaware Bay because they like the Atlantic coast for habitat. We were shocked. There were still construction crews and equipment out there, and we had a pair of piping plovers set up shop.

The pair laid four eggs, and we enclosed the nest with fencing. It was a late nest and, unfortunately, the eggs were eaten by predators. The pair abandoned the nest, but it was just incredible. That was the first time ever we had piping plovers nest at the refuge. The next year, we had eight pairs of nesting plovers who laid 27 eggs, hatched 18 chicks, and raised 12 to fledging. This was totally mind-boggling to us.

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Annie Larsen (far left) works with Service partners to collect data during the Hurricane Sandy Saltmarsh Restoration Project Fish Characterization Study, Credit: USFWS

What fascinates you most about piping plovers?

I was surprised to see the tenacity with which the pairs do all kinds of tricks to protect their nesting territory. It’s astounding to watch the males chase terns and laughing gulls away. This adult bird, a small fuzzy ball on two sticks, can chase these larger birds away. Watching the male and female work in tandem to build their nest and protect it against other birds and other piping plovers is  stunning. They accomplish so much in such a short time to propagate the species.

piping plovers and chicks_Kaiti Titherington USFWS_flickr

A piping plover and its chicks, Credit: USFWS

feigning broken wing to protect eggs_Ariel Kallenbach_usfws_flickr

Two piping plovers feigning broken wings to protect chicks, Credit: USFWS

What are the most rewarding aspects of your job?

My biggest joy is sharing what I experience, especially with wildlife and conservation, with the public. I have such a special job — not everybody gets to experience or know about the work happening on the refuge. It’s always a pleasure when people stop me in the field and say ”Hey, what are you doing?” I love to show them the equipment and what I’m working on. It’s rewarding to see how much people truly appreciate the work we do.

I think it’s important for people to have a sense of place. No matter how many seasons I spend at Prime Hook Refuge, every season is a new and exciting thing. With that sense of place, you know how the seasons progress and what comes and goes.  It becomes a neat foundation for a lot of the biological work you do.

What does receiving this award mean to you?

I work for my own satisfaction and the joy it gives me. My career with the Service has given me the opportunity to experience a lot of things. Receiving this award is the culmination of all those experiences, and it’s so heartwarming to see people appreciate my passion. You don’t look for it, but when it happens it’s the greatest thing in the world.