Tag Archives: piping plover

Nonconventional Conservation at the Long Island Field Office

When the fish biologist held out the net for me to scoop up a freshly-caught trout, I tried to act as nonchalant as the other scientists. For them, it seemed, using an electronic backpack to shock and net dozens of fish was just another day in the office. But for me in my second week as a new Outreach Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it felt like I had just stepped into a sci-fi movie.

I’m a writer, not a scientist. I majored in English and haven’t taken a biology class since high school. But even though I don’t share my colleagues’ scientific expertise, I joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because I do share their commitment to conservation and their love for the outdoors. While humans and their pursuits have not always been the greatest friends of fish and wildlife, I’m excited to find the place of the humanities in the world of environmental conservation. I’m grateful for the opportunity to combine my writing background with my environmental interests as I share the stories of the conservationists and creatures at our Long Island Field Office.

If I seem like an unconventional representative of field biology, the office I’m representing might appear an equally unlikely candidate for environmental conservation. The Long Island Field Office in Shirley, New York is a unique and sometimes overlooked site for biological research.

Few might think of the New York City metropolitan area as a hotspot for wildlife. And the LIFO certainly operates within a smaller space than some of the more prominent areas in New York state or the Northeast region. Yet with only two full-time biologists, the Long Island Field Office is a special and important wildlife locale for the state and the region.

Those who frequent or dream of frequenting New York City’s cultural centers and renowned restaurants might be surprised to know that two of New York’s precious threatened species—the piping plover shorebird and the seabeach amaranth plant—have crucial habitats on Long Island beaches. In fact, the entire Atlantic New York population of the precarious plover is concentrated on Long Island. LIFO biologists work tirelessly to protect these uniquely North American shorebirds, and one glance at these tiny creatures can tell you why.

Birds and bushes aren’t the only creatures that make the Long Island Field Office special. Because of the 8.5 million New Yorkers that fall within LIFO’s area of responsibility, the biologists there have an unrivaled amount of public interaction. The LIFO also collaborates with some high-profile parties on major projects, like the Army Corps of Engineers and their regular beachfront stabilization efforts. The biologists, the Brooklynites, and the birds all interact in a very careful balancing act at the Long Island Field Office.

During my time here as the Outreach Coordinator for the Long Island Field Office, I hope that more people—both conventional conservationists and seeming outsiders like me—become interested and involved in the important projects and precious creatures at our Long Island Field Office.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Winter has arrived in the Northeast and snow is in the forecast. While we are piling on the cozy layers and feasting on soup and hot chocolate, outside temperatures are dropping and food for wildlife is getting scarce. Animals across the region are tackling the season head-on and have some impressive strategies to cope with winter conditions.

In the winter, snowshoe hares completely transform, their fur changing from brown to white for better camouflage in the snow. They spend their time eating and hiding which helps to conserve energy for their encounters with predators, such as the lynx. Further south, the New England cottontail uses its brown coat to blend into thick underbrush, and uses snow as a ladder to reach higher shoots, seedlings and twigs.

Have you ever wondered where amphibians and reptiles go in the winter? Most frogs, turtles, and snakes dramatically decrease their activity and enter a state of brumation, or dormancy, where their temperature drops and the heart rate slows down dramatically. Many turtles will bury themselves in mud at the bottom of a pond and absorb oxygen through their skin from the surrounding water. Wood frogs are even capable of freezing solid under leaves in forested areas. They are able to do this by filling their cells with a sugary substance that acts like antifreeze. The frog’s heartbeat stops and stays dormant all winter until they thaw again in spring!

A piping plover and chick by Kaiti Titherington/USFWS

For many birds, the cold is just too much to bear. Like many of us in the winter, migrating birds including the piping plover, leave their homes on the chilly northern coast and take a vacation down south to the warmer shorelines and sandy beaches. Most piping plover are already in their vacation nests by mid-September and come back to work (and mate) by mid-April. Bird migrations vary in length, but some range from hundreds to thousands of miles each year.

An American black bear in a tree. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS

If long distance migration isn’t your thing, why not just sleep through winter like the American black bear? Bears aren’t true hibernators, but they can doze for up to 100 days at a time by slowing their metabolism and dropping their core temperature. Bears usually put on fifteen pounds a week during the fall to prepare for their long nap and stretch without food.

As Andrew King took this shot, an Indiana bat flew beneath a large hibernating cluster of Indiana bats on the ceiling of Ray’s Cave, IN (taken pre-white nose syndrome.)

The Indiana bat, a true hibernator, accumulates layers of fat and spends months tucked away in its hibernaculum, like a cave or mine. Throughout winter, bats periodically rouse to move between hibernacula, before their heart rate and body temperature is dramatically lowered to conserve energy. Sadly, white-nose syndrome is plaguing bat hibernacula and causing populations of bats to plummet. Learn more about white-nose syndrome here.

A ruffed grouse in the snow by Head Harbor Lightstation/ Creative Commons

Ruffed grouse are non-migratory birds. They stick out the winters in their usual homes in a protected thicket or burrowed in the snow.  In the late fall, feathers begin to grow on their legs to protect from the cold and help conserve body heat. Pectinations (fleshy comb-like projections along their toes) help them walk on soft snow, roost and burrow. Down feathers allow birds to trap air against their body to stay warm, and many birds will even cuddle together to keep warm.

Swallows cuddle up to keep warm. Photo by Keith Williams/ Creative Commons

We can learn a thing or two from wildlife this winter. Cuddling, sleeping, or vacationing through winter doesn’t sound half bad, especially if you’re not a fan of winter weather!

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/