Tag Archives: conserve wildlife foundation of nj

Mission impossible? New app makes shorebird data collection easy and fun

Right now in offices all along the eastern seaboard, shorebird technicians are hunched in front of computer monitors tapping numbers into spreadsheets. A mundane end to six months spent observing life and death on the beach, but an important step to capture what played out during the breeding season.


A piping plover at its nest. Credit: Bill Byrne

“From when the birds arrive in March to when they leave in August, we are checking on them every day, recording progress with eggs and chicks, and tracking predator species, so you can only imagine the amount of data we collect,” explained Emily Heiser, a wildlife biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation (CWF) of New Jersey who assists with running the state’s monitoring program for the federally listed piping plover.

“There is a data sheet for every pair, and a pair might have several failed nest attempts in a season, and there are more than a hundred pairs,” she said. “You do the math.”

I did. It adds up to a lot of data, and until this year, you would have had to triple that amount to capture the total workload for her staff. All of the data that was recorded into notebooks in the field had to be transcribed onto paper datasheets in the office, and then transferred into a spreadsheet at the end of the season.

But no longer in New Jersey. “There is no transcribing. There is no data entry. Now you just collect it in the field and all you have to do is check it at the end of the season to make sure the information accurately reflects what happened,” said Heiser.

That’s because shorebird biologists in the Garden State aren’t using notebooks anymore. They’re using NestStory, an application for their smartphones.


Until recently, biologists Emily Heiser of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey (left) and Michelle Stantial (right) of SUNY ESF used paper notebooks to record  piping plover data in the field. Now they use a smartphone app. Credit: Jim Verhagen

I know what you’re thinking: It’s 2017. What took them so long? Well that’s what Jim Verhagen was thinking too.

A seasonal resident of Long Beach Island, N.J., Verhagen had developed a relationship with staff at CWF over the years based on a shared appreciation for the local bird community. As an avid wildlife photographer, he too spent a lot of time observing birds in the field. But as a computer programmer, he knew he could harness technology to use his time more effectively.

“I made an app for myself for tracking the birds I was sighting — particularly piping plover and peregrine falcon — so I could try to map their exact locations for the purposes of taking better photos,” he explained.


Computer programmer and wildlife photographer Jim Verhagen designed the NestStory app to streamline data collection on nesting birds. Credit: Ben Wurst

As Verhagen figured out how to use smartphone technology to more accurately track beach nesting birds, he realized that the people who really needed precise information on these species were still doing things the old-fashioned way.

“I was going out in the field with scientists all the time, and they were recording data in such complex ways, all compiled with little notes,” he said. “I was struck by the amount of time that was being wasted, and the potential loss of accuracy.”

He showed his app to a few people in the plover world, but met resistance. “They would say, ‘We tried something like that once. It didn’t work,’ ” Verhagen recalled.

Then he showed it to Michelle Stantial, a PhD student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) who is studying factors that limit reproductive success of the federally listed piping plover in southern New Jersey.


Stantial coordinates data collection on piping plover at nine study sites in New Jersey in collaboration with several organizations. The NestStory app gives the partners a common platform to store and share data. Credit: Jim Verhagen

Stantial recognized the potential immediately. She coordinates data collection at nine study sites in the state in collaboration with a number of different organizations.

“There’s a lot of data to keep track of, and anything that helps us communicate with our partners about what we are seeing when and where, and anything that helps them to reciprocate, is super valuable,” she said. “NestStory literally fits this need perfectly, like a building block.”

The application provides a common format for collecting data, a central repository for storing it, and a platform for communicating with others who are doing the same thing.

It’s also fun. “The main concept is that you run ‘missions’ at certain site, on a certain date, with a certain number of other people,” said Verhagen. Say you are on a mission at Barnegat Light, the app will automatically record the weather data and the tidal stage, and then open a checklist of required activities that you must complete — essentially nest checks.

“You are either looking for new nests or checking on old ones,” said Verhagen. “At each one, you enter how many eggs you see, how many chicks you see, and whether or not you see an adult female, an adult male, or an unknown adult.”


A screenshot from the NestStory app.

That’s all you have to do, but there are many other things you can do, such as take photos or record notes. You can even request to have a custom module — or questionnaire — added to the app a part of your team’s mission. For example, if you want to everyone to record certain information about predators or human activities.

But NestStory’s biggest selling point is that it was built with input from its target audience: biologists. Verhagen worked closely with Stantial to make sure the app would be practical for data collection in the field, and would also support the application of that data for management needs. NestStory outputs data to U.S. Geological Survey standards, and can feed data directly into another new tool called PiperEX, designed to help managers decide when to use a nest exclosure.

Stantial tested the app for her own data collection in 2016, and then presented it to her peers at the annual piping plover conference in the fall. This year, both SUNY ESF and the CWF agreed to pilot NestStory for their entire piping plover data collection efforts in New Jersey, including at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

“It might not seem like it because using notebooks and paper is common practice, but this is a really huge step into the future of data collection,” said Stantial.

Just ask Todd Pover, a Senior Biologist at CWF who oversees the field crew contracted by the Service to manage piping plover at Forsythe, home to one third of the state’s plover population. “This was my 24th season monitoring piping plovers, all of the previous ones done with notebooks and paper data sheets,” he said. “Change is always hard at first, but with NestStory, even after some initial bumps when we tested it, there was universal consensus among our Refuge field crew that this was a very good thing. I can’t imagine going back to the old way now.”

Nobody can.

“It has transformed the way we collect data in the field,” said Heiser. “At the end of this season, instead of having to put data into spreadsheets, we are putting it into reports, and it doesn’t require someone spending hours on the computer.”

For more information about NestStory visit: https://www.neststory.org/

NJ biologist recognized for efforts to save endangered wildlife


Biologist Wendy Walsh (holding a red knot here) of our New Jersey Field Office is receiving the Women and Wildlife Leadership Award from one of our partner organizations. She was recognized by our director earlier this year as an endangered species recovery champion too! Photo courtesy of Wendy.

One of our very own biologists, Wendy Walsh, will be among the three individuals honored tonight by the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey at the 11th annual Women & Wildlife Awards.

The awards recognize the recipients’ achievements, the advances they have made for women in their professions, their efforts to increase awareness of rare species and the habitats they depend on, and their contributions to New Jersey’s wildlife.

Mara Cige of CWF writes: As a senior fish and wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2016 Women & Wildlife Leadership Award Winner Wendy Walsh has proven herself invaluable in the endangered species field for her work with wildlife such as the piping plover, swamp pink, and seabeach amaranth.

Her most notable work is with the red knot. Ms. Walsh took the species lead in the middle of the federal listing process. Her tireless efforts coordinating, analyzing and interpreting data, particularly detailing the effects of changing climate on these long-distance migrant shorebirds has made her work widely acclaimed as the final rule.

From biology to policy, she has an uncanny ability to grasp important information and translate it for any species she finds herself working with. She has created partnerships with additional organizations to accelerate conservation efforts. In such collaborations, Ms. Walsh’s open-mindedness to others’ expertise makes for effective planning and implementation of the vision she has to one day recover all threatened and endangered species.

By acknowledging these special individuals, we hope to encourage more young women to strive to make a positive impact on species and habitat protection, especially through the biological sciences.

Check out this Q&A between Mara and Wendy.

What is your favorite thing about your job?
“I love that I’m constantly learning something new. Over the years, I’ve had the chance to learn about and observe so many species, and I’ve had the chance to really get to know a few in particular — piping plovers, seabeach amaranth, bog turtles, swamp pink, and red knots. And I’ve had the opportunity to work on such a wide range of issues — utility lines, transportation, mitigation, stormwater, beach nourishment, bird collision, volunteer programs, restoration, fishery management, listing, and most recently aquaculture. I’m very fortunate to have a job where there is always a new learning opportunity on the horizon.”

Do you have a New Jersey wildlife species that you like best? Why?
“From a non-scientific point of view, I love watching dragonflies and wading birds with my kids, and taking the family to count and tag horseshoe crabs. But professionally, I’m partial to the beach species I’ve worked on — piping plovers, red knots, seabeach amaranth. I enjoy the beach ecosystem, and I feel a responsibility to these beach-dependent species that face so many challenges along New Jersey’s human-dominated coast.”

What interests you the most about New Jersey’s wildlife?
“I’m fascinated at the contrast between New Jersey’s really remarkable habitats and ecosystems in the context of our equally remarkable human population density. Generations of pioneering conservationists from past decades have allowed our State’s wildlife to persist even with so many people. I view our generation — and my kids’ — as stewards of that conservation legacy.”

What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t working?
“I love spending time with my family, such as taking trips with my husband, Mac, and two daughters, as well as time with extended family — Mom, brothers, cousins. I enjoy working with my kids’ Girls Scout troops and helping at their schools.”

Join us in congratulating Wendy!

Beach restorations along New Jersey's Delaware Bay will help horseshoe crabs spawn in early May.

Changing fortunes on Delaware Bay

One might think a creature named the horseshoe crab would be naturally lucky–and in some ways it is. The prehistoric throwback has retained its basic physiology for around 350 million years, so it’s already far outlasted our own species on an evolutionary scale. Evolved as it may be, its luck has been challenged along the shores of the Delaware Bay. Beaches that traditionally serve as one of the crabs’ major spawning grounds were severely eroded by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the species is projected to be impacted by continuing shore development, frequent intense storms like Sandy and ongoing sea level rise.

The eggs of mating horseshoe crabs at Delaware Bay will sustain thousands of migrating shorebirds on their long trips to the Arctic. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

The eggs of mating horseshoe crabs at Delaware Bay will sustain thousands of migrating shorebirds on their long trips to the Arctic. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Even less fortunate are the migrating shorebirds who depend on their critical stopover at Delaware Bay to refuel on sustaining horseshoe crab eggs on their way to the Arctic—a journey that, for some, clocks more than 18,000 miles annually. Take the rufa red knot for example, a species whose numbers have declined so sharply that it is being considered for federal Endangered Species Act protection. It’s estimated that more than 50 percent of the entire rufa red knot population stops at Delaware Bay, one of the last undeveloped shores on the Atlantic coast, making the area essential to the continuing survival of the species.

Fifty to 70 truckloads of sand are being added daily to five beaches on Delaware Bay that were badly eroded by Hurricane Sandy. Click below to view video of the beaches being replenished.

But sometimes good fortune is the result of foresight. To help both of these species and the beach habitats upon which they depend, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has broken ground on the first of 31 forward-looking Hurricane Sandy resilience projects: a $1.65 million restoration of several beaches along the Delaware Bay. The effort includes repairing storm surge and erosion damage at Reeds Beach, Kimbles Beach, Cooks Beach and Pierce’s Point in New Jersey’s Cape May County and at Moore’s Beach in Cumberland County (all important habitat areas for both crabs and shorebirds). The project involves  depositing some 50-70 truckloads of locally-mined sand daily to re-establish the diminishing coastline, with total sand replenishment estimated at 45,500 tons.

A map of the Reeds Beach restoration area. Inset: Greater Delaware Bay with beach restoration proposals highlighted in red. Credit: American Littoral Society.

A map of the Reeds Beach restoration area. Inset: Greater Delaware Bay with beach restoration proposals highlighted in red. Credit: American Littoral Society.

Partners in the effort, including the American Littoral Society and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, are coordinating the restoration with the Service’s Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, and with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. These partners have not only been instrumental in helping to implement the Service’s core coastal resilience and habitat restoration goals, they’ve also been seeking to secure further funding to restore additional spans of Delaware Bay shoreline.

Restoration crews have been employing something of a hurry-up offense, as the sand must be added, spread and graded by early May, when the horseshoe crabs typically return for spawning.

Cape May National Wildlife Refuge hosts annual nighttime horseshoe crab tagging events on Kimbles Beach. Credit: USFWS.

Cape May National Wildlife Refuge hosts annual nighttime horseshoe crab tagging events on Kimbles Beach. Credit: USFWS.

Cape May Refuge Manager Brian Braudis says the refuge plans to host horseshoe crab taggings on May 15 and May 29 at 8:30 p.m. when the crabs return, on its Kimbles Beach parcel. Last year, volunteers including veterans, retirees and school children—some bussed in from upstate classrooms—tagged 1,000 horseshoe crabs. With a support network like this, who needs luck?

To read more about U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects, visit http://www.fws.gov/hurricane/sandy. To view media coverage of Cape May beach restoration projects, click here. To learn about the Service’s broader conservation and habitat restoration efforts on Delaware Bay, click here.