Tag Archives: Lake Ontario

Restoration of Piping Plovers Happening on Multiple Fronts

Originally shared by our partners at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), Karen Moore discusses the work of ESF’s professors and students to conserve piping plovers along the shores of New Jersey and Lake Ontario. 

High water on Lake Ontario, urbanization of the New Jersey shore and a growing predator population are among the challenges facing one of America’s iconic shorebirds and the conservationists determined to restore the bird’s population.

Piping plovers are found along the Atlantic Coast and in the Great Lakes and Midwest regions. Unique to North America, the birds nest on open, sandy beaches, making them vulnerable to predators and the dangers of being in close proximity to humans who use the beaches for recreation.

“There aren’t many shorebirds that nest out in the beaches south of the Arctic,” said Dr. Jonathan Cohen, assistant professor at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF). “They don’t control mosquitos or hold the cure for cancer in their bones. They are not hunted by humans. But they’re valuable as a unique part of the American beach. They’re unique to North America.”

Piping plovers were placed on the threatened and endangered species list in 1986 when only 700 pairs remained on the Atlantic Coast, said Cohen, who teaches in ESF’s Department of Environmental and Forest Biology. The goal for conservationists such as Cohen is to establish 2,000 pairs of piping plovers. Currently there are about 1,941 pairs, but Cohen cautions, “there’s still work to be done.”

Photo Credit: Northside Jim

Piping plover conservation is important because the birds nest on beaches where they interact with people, Cohen said. “They’re affected by people all the time.” Piping plovers build nests where people go for recreation, build houses and drive to go fishing. “Just about every conceivable form of coastal human activity that affects sandy beaches on the Atlantic Coasts interacts with the piping plovers and causes problems for them in terms of disturbing them when they’re trying to nest,” Cohen said. Compounding the problem is increasing predator populations that prey on the birds and their eggs.

For researchers, it’s easy to become attached to the species with young that look like they stepped out of a Pixar movie and life challenges that mirror human’s, Cohen said.

“You get to observe their behavior all the time when you’re checking their nest every day. Each bird seems to have a different personality and then the chicks hatch and they’re tiny, little, cute fuzzballs. You watch them grow and you see the things that are threats. They lose their young … and they have to start over again when they lose their nest,” Cohen said.

Photo Credit: Northside Jim

 

“They deal – like all of us do – with a lot of struggles every day, and they handle all the difficulties of living on the edge of the sea.”

Cohen and ESF graduate student Michelle Stantial are working to lessen one of those difficulties as they study the threat from predators.

Soon after piping plovers were put on the endangered list, exclosure cages – a welded-wire kind of fence about 10 feet in diameter with a soft-cover roof – were used to prevent predators from getting to the eggs. The cages allow the birds to walk in and out but keep out predators such as foxes, skunks and other birds. They were “very successful in getting more nests to hatch,” Cohen said.

Unfortunately, some predators learned the cages signaled a potential nest and would wait to attack the adults as they came out of the cage.

“Over the last 25 years people noticed this can become a real problem. Questions were asked whether it was worth it to use these exclosure cages,” said Cohen, who joined a group studying the pros and cons of using the cages.

The group developed a web-based tool that allows conservationists to enter the data on nest survival and loss of nests to abandonment (when an adult leaves the nest unattended, possibly because the adult died). Once researchers input their data, the Decision Support Tool provides information to help make a decision for a particular beach.

“Sometimes it’s hard to know. Some people panic when they lose nests and want to pull them all, but then they’re exposing the nests to predators,” said Cohen. The next phase is assisting other researchers and conservationists as they learn the system.

Cohen was the recent recipient of a $21,751 grant from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund to help restore the piping plover to Lake Ontario.

Piping plovers disappeared from Lake Ontario in 1984, and came back in 2015, staying on the east end in small numbers. “They didn’t succeed in nesting in 2016 but hopefully they’ll try again this year.”

The Lake Ontario return may be the result of efforts on the western Great Lakes. Since 1986, the numbers of pairs – mostly on Lake Michigan – have increased. “Now that they are having better reproductive success, the population is expanding,” said Cohen. “So I think in 2015 we benefited from the efforts out to the west. “

The plover conservation community in New York is looking at ways to protect and restore habitat to get its population to solidify its foothold and grow, he said. However, high water levels from heavy spring rains may hamper this year’s nesting. “It has prevented plovers from nesting there so far this year,” Cohen said. One bird was seen at Sandy Island Beach State Park in mid-May but it didn’t stay. As of the beginning of June, one other bird was seen foraging in the area. “We hope if the water comes down some more we will get some late nesting. But if that was going to happen, it would have to be in the next couple of weeks,” said Cohen.

Stantial, a graduate student working on her Ph.D., is studying piping plovers in New Jersey. While the Atlantic Coast piping plovers, in general, have been doing relatively well in the last 20 years, New Jersey is “a little different,” she said.

Since the species was placed on the endangered species list, observers have seen no increases in abundance in New Jersey. “We’re trying to figure out why and what we can do to help increase the number of nesting pairs and increase productivity in New Jersey specifically,” she said.

Photo credit: Northside Jim

“I think a lot of it has to do with the lack of habitat. If you think about the New Jersey coastline, there are a lot of barrier islands but a lot of it’s been built up by people,” she said.

Holgate and Barnegat Light are two study sites located on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Three pairs were noted at Barnegat Light in 2016 and 24 pairs at Holgate. “Holgate is sort of the crown jewel of central New Jersey,” Stantial said. “It’s got a natural system and there’s a lot of overwash (where beach sediments move across a dune area).”

Holgate, which is home to part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, is a two-and-a-half mile portion of the beach and marshland that is closed from March 1 to Sept. 1. This gives animals, including the piping plovers, a large window to carry out nesting and other activities undisturbed. “They have a whole season human-free,” she said.

Field observations will continue this summer, followed by data analysis and recommendations for specific management that will maximize ideal piping plover breeding habitat and minimize the effects of predation and human disturbance, according to Stantial. A piping plover data collection app is also being developed where people can collect the same type of data all along Atlantic Coast to go into one database.

“We’re mid-project now,” she said.

Piping plovers are highly adapted to the dynamic ecosystem of the overwashes, she said. “They like those kinds of spots.”

Those spots are often created when hurricanes hit the coast; however, if a hurricane hits too early in the season, it can be detrimental to the bird’s reproductive season.

“If a hurricane strikes while they have nests on the ground it would cause a widespread loss of their reproductive effort that year,” said Cohen, “but the hurricanes tend to reshape the coast in a way that’s good for piping plovers. They like open sand, and the vegetation gets knocked back by storms. “

The birds forage in mudflats that are created when storms deposit sand in tidal areas. “So they really evolved to take advantage of habitat created by storms,” Cohen said.

However, rising sea levels and beach erosion could prove too much for piping plover nesting grounds. In an effort to predict where the piping plovers habitat will be over time, models have been run by Virginia Tech and the U.S. Geological Survey to predict the effect that sea level rise and climate change will have on the coast.

“There’s probably places where new habitat will arise, but a lot of places where it may be gone after the sea level gets too high for barrier islands to persist,” said Cohen.

Leopard frog

Keeping the Great Lakes great

Today you’re hearing from branch chief of environmental quality Anne Secord and biologist Gian Dodici of our New York Field Office. 

The quantity and quality of wetlands have been in a long decline in the coastal areas of the Great Lakes due to a combination of factors, including water level regulation and development.

Since 2010, our office and partners have been hard at work improving habitat at the Rochester Embayment Area of Concern, a specific section of the Lake Ontario shoreline around Rochester and about 6 miles of one of its tributaries, the Genesee River. Thanks to funding from Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, we’ve greatly improved the wetlands in one part of this area of concern, Braddock Bay in Greece, New York. 

Project Biologist Gian Dodici and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Biologist Heidi Kennedy at Braddock Bay Wildlife Management Area. Credit: USFWS

Project Biologist Gian Dodici and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Biologist Heidi Kennedy at Braddock Bay Wildlife Management Area. Credit: USFWS

Our work started with wetland habitat assessments in streams, ponds, rivers, and bays on the south shore of Lake Ontario near Rochester. We found degraded wetlands with few species and limited diversity of physical habitat. Cattails and a select few other plant species ran rampant, crowding out other plants, invading open areas, and nearly covering the entire wetland. By contrast, a complex, healthy wetland would generally have a mix of open water and vegetation with a variety of different plant types and heights. 

Our office prioritized several areas within the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Braddock Bay Wildlife Management Area (which is in the Rochester Embayment Area of Concern) for our focus and developed plans to restore some of the most degraded areas to healthy, diverse wetlands.

Excavator

Excavator constructing potholes and channels at Buck Pond 2016. Credit: USFWS

How did we do it?

  • We recreated a mosaic of edge habitat by excavating over 22 acres of potholes and open water channels in the solid cattail stands at three sites within the Wildlife Management Area; Long Pond, Buck Pond and the Salmon Creek Preserve. Edge habitats are transitions between one habitat and another. These areas will now be better habitat for amphibians, fish and migratory birds.
  • We also constructed 16 acres of interspersed habitat mounds, as well as islands that are isolated from the tenacious roots of the adjacent cattails. These mounds and islands have been treated to remove cattails, then seeded with herbaceous natives and planted with native woody species such as dogwood, buttonbush and maple.  The wetland potholes and habitat mounds are specifically designed to be of varying size and depth/height so as to improve habitat diversity. The birds and bees will love it!
  • The channels allow fish, such as northern pike, the access to spawn in newly created wetland habitat and will improve nesting and foraging habitat for ducks, wading birds, and, hopefully, the New York State-endangered black tern. The black tern nests in expansive marshes with mixtures of emergent wetlands and open water.
  • We also constructed vernal pools, which are temporary pools of water, within the upland area of the Salmon Creek Preserve to create breeding habitat for amphibians like the leopard frog.
Frog eggs

Leopard frogs should love the restored habitat. Here are what their eggs look like underwater. Credit: USFWS

Leopard frog

See those little translucent eggs in the other picture? They grow in to this striking leopard frog! Hopefully we will see a lot of them in the restored wetlands. Credit: USFWS

Take a look at the aerial video of the Salmon Creek Preserve this past winter after potholes, channels and islands had been constructed.

Die-hard angling for lake trout

Curt is a fisheries biologist at the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation in New York. Photo credit: USFWS

Curt holding a three year old cisco. Photo credit: USFWS

Today we hear from Curt Karboski, fish biologist with the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office located in western New York. He’s part of a team working to restore iconic fish species such as lake trout and lake sturgeon to the Great Lakes. Join Curt and his team in the Niagara Gorge, located below Niagara Falls as they search for lake trout – the largest trout native to the Great Lakes.

The Niagara Gorge, about 3 miles downstream from the infamous Niagara Falls. Photo credit: USFWS

The Niagara Gorge, about 3 miles downstream from the well know Niagara Falls. Photo credit: USFWS

In a time of year when only the most die-hard lake trout and steelhead anglers flock to Niagara Gorge, it is rare to see fish biologists plying the waters alongside them. But on a cold rainy day in November, biologists from the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office were there, relying on the knowledge and skill of a local charter captain to help catch lake trout they needed in order to complete a study. The highly turbulent waters and strong flows downstream of Niagara Falls make it impossible to use standard fish-sampling gear without harming the fish or endangering the crew.  An estimated 100,000 cubic feet of water per second comes over Niagara Falls, and our GPS has shown us moving as much as 15 mph with the motor idling. Thus, we enlisted assistance from a local captain who has years of experience angling for lake trout in these waters, and in spite of the weather, we collected 22 lake trout!

Dan Drake, Lower Great Lakes FWCO with a lake trout caught on the Niagara River in the Niagara Gorge in November 2015. Photo credit: USFWS

Fish biologist Dan Drake holds a lake trout caught on the Niagara River in the Niagara Gorge in November 2015. Photo credit: USFWS

In conducting our study, we were looking to answer specific questions such as; where do lake trout spend their time in the river and is it seasonal?, when do they leave the river and enter Lake Ontario?, and is their location important to their growth and reproduction? This information will help guide biologists when making decisions on stocking lake trout and conserving their habitat to restore this valuable fishery.

After collecting the lake trout, the charter captain motored us over to the Linneaus and we transferred the trout on board to be measured and have tags implanted. Photo credit: USFWS

After collecting the lake trout, the charter captain motored us over to the Linneaus and we transferred the trout on board to be measured and have tags implanted. Photo credit: USFWS

In a protected area along the gorge, we moored the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s vessel Linnaeus, to be used as a stream-side platform for measuring fish and implanting them with a tag.  After collecting the lake trout, we transferred them on board the Linnaeus where we recorded length, weight and gender; then anesthetized ten females and surgically implanted them with acoustic tags. 

Lower Great Lakes biologists surgically implant an acoustic tag in a lake trout under mild anesthesia, with minimal stress to the fish. Photo credit: USFWS

Service biologists surgically implant an acoustic tag in a lake trout under mild anesthesia, with minimal stress to the fish. Photo credit: USFWS

Lake trout are real wanderers traveling many miles in search of food, and some return to the same spawning beds each year. The acoustic tags transmit a series of pings that can be decoded by underwater receivers and deliver information on individual fish. As the tagged fish move through the river, an array of acoustic receivers detect the pings sent out by the tag, helping  us identify the location and depth of each fish, and the amount of time they spend in any given area. The long battery life of the acoustic tag makes it possible to track the fish for several years, allowing us to learn more about spawning behavior and the types of habitats that are key to maintaining a healthy population. 

Ten lake trout were tagged and released back into the Niagara River in November 2015. We will tag 10 more fish next year, as well. Photo credit: USFWS

Ten lake trout were tagged and released back into the Niagara River in November 2015. We will tag 10 more fish next year. Photo credit: USFWS

As top predators, lake trout are ecologically important in helping to maintain balance among other species, creating space for aquatic life in the lake. Lake trout are economically important and have historically supported a strong commercial and recreational fishing industry. But by the 1930’s, pollution, over-fishing and the invasive sea lamprey led to their decline throughout the Great Lakes, and by the 1950’s they had completely disappeared from Lake Ontario.

Since lake trout do not reproduce until they are at least 6 to 10 years old, it takes a long time for populations to rebuild themselves when their numbers are very low.  A stocking program, in concert with active sea lamprey control that began in 1971, has been helping to restore the lake trout. The Service conducts these programs with state, Tribal and Canadian partners on the Great Lakes. According to USGS Biologist Brian Lantry, recent trawl surveys found wild lake trout juveniles, suggesting there may be natural reproduction occurring again in the Niagara River region.

Fishing for lake trout on the gorge. Photo credit: USFWS

Fishing for lake trout on the gorge. Photo credit: USFWS

Beginning in spring, we will be back on the river and on the lake alongside our fellow die-hard anglers in search of evidence that our Great Lake trout are coming back from the brink. Understanding their spawning behavior and habitat preferences in the Niagara Gorge will help us manage towards a self-sustaining population and inform future decisions on conserving habitat.

Learn more: Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office

Read other blogs about the work of the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office: Secrets of the Lower Great Lakes: The search for lake sturgeon and Setting the stage for sturgeon