Tag Archives: New Jersey

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.

Time Lapse: Dam Removed at Weston Mill

Watch this dam be chipped away before your eyes…

Aaaand it’s gone! Thanks to a close collaboration between the Service’s New Jersey Field Office, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, and other partners, the obsolete Weston Mill Dam was removed from the Millstone River in 2017.

“Dams such as the Weston Mill often present a threat to kayakers and canoers, and cause stagnant stretches of water that don’t hold enough oxygen for fish,” said Melissa Foster, senior fish and wildlife biologist at the field office. “With it gone, we’ve opened 4.5 miles of the Millstone River that had been blocked to migrating fish, such as American shad and river herring, for centuries.”

Weston Mill is the latest in a series of dams to be removed as part of a multi-partner effort to enhance ecological health and recreational opportunities in New Jersey’s Raritan River Basin. Funds for the dam’s removal were provided as partial compensation for natural resource damages caused by chemical releases at the American Cyanamid Superfund Site in Bridgewater Township, New Jersey.

Staff from the New Jersey Field Office’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration program worked closely with co-trustees NOAA and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to secure the settlement. The remaining funds will be used for other

Check out the time lapse video of the project above, and watch a drone video about the river below!

(Video Courtesy of Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association)

Looking for Love in the Right Places

Today we hear from Elizabeth Rogers, with the National Park Service at Fire Island National Seashore in New York State. Elizabeth spent some time this spring and summer working as a Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sharing the stories and science of resilient coastal communities and systems. On her days off, she can be found exploring the outdoors or dabbling in the kitchen.

Millions of people come to beaches along the Atlantic Coast every summer to swim, stroll, and sunbathe. Piping plovers, federally protected beach-nesting birds, return to sandy stretches from Newfoundland to North Carolina each year to look for love.

When it comes to finding the right place to nest and raise their young, piping plovers are picky. Nests are often found along the upper beach in sparsely vegetated areas of sand, pebbles, or shells above the high tide line.

Piping plovers nest along the upper beach in sparsely vegetated areas of sand, pebbles, or shells above the high tide line. Credit: Dave Frederick/Creative Commons

Ideal nesting habitat has long been identified and protected with string fencing at federal, state, and local parks across the Northeast. Until recently, however, there was little information to help land managers understand the importance of local nesting habitat within the broader range of this species.

Two studies funded through Hurricane Sandy relief aid are helping to change that.

Since Hurricane Sandy struck, researchers from Virginia Tech have banded and monitored piping plovers near a channel, or breach, that opened during the storm within Fire Island National Seashore’s wilderness area in New York. The study shows that natural, unmodified channels like this breach are a big deal for breeding plovers. Annual surveys have shown that the breach shoreline and nearby overwashes and flood shoal islands are attracting new piping plover pairs.

Due to the dynamic nature of sandy coastal environments, there is an abundance of flat, open habitat with little vegetation. An ample supply of potential nest sites and edible insects make the shoreline near the natural inlet a draw for an increasing number of piping plovers.

Over the course of the five-year Virginia Tech study, more than half of the adult birds have returned to the site year after year. One adult flew over 30 miles from its nesting site to feed near the breach and was observed the following year nesting at the wilderness breach. This year, two adult plovers banded as chicks from different nests have returned and paired up —  a true summer love story.

An inventory compiled for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NALCC) by coastal geologist Tracy Rice identified piping plover habitat on a regional scale during three distinct time periods: before Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and after the storm in 2013 and 2015. The Fish and Wildlife Service is a supporting partner in the NALCC.

The inventory shows how sands — and potential nesting habitat like natural tidal inlets — have shifted over time across the Atlantic Coast. With a broader view of breeding grounds, the location of prime piping plover habitat and the impacts of habitat modification come into clearer focus.

Little Egg Inlet on Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey is one of just two unmodified tidal inlets in a 350-mile stretch of coastline within the breeding range of the piping plover. Credit: Google Earth

Rice’s inventory found the wilderness breach at Fire Island and Little Egg Inlet, an opening into Great Bay in the wilderness portion of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, are the only natural, unmodified channels in a 350-mile stretch of coast from Montauk, New York, to Chincoteague, Virginia. Beaches near natural inlets, shaped and reshaped by the tides, can provide an abundant supply of nesting habitat and food resources for shorebirds. Identifying these natural assets on a regional scale provides land managers an important perspective.

Taken together, these studies deepen our understanding of how landscape change within a species’ range can influence breeding success. This new information will guide how shorebird nest sites are protected in the future. Good news for piping plovers looking for love along the Atlantic Coast.