Tag Archives: piping plovers

(The Real) Plovers of New York

Beaches, bagels, and ’burbs: the three B’s of Long Island. If you haven’t been to the island—like me, prior to this week—you probably associate the area with some of these trademarks. But do you know about one of the tiniest but most important ‘B’s on the island—birds?


Outreach coordinator Bret Serbin’s first trip to Long Island with Long Island field biologists, USFWS.

Long Island is a crucial habitat for many birds, including a number of terns, skimmers, and even a few bald eagles. Only if you look very closely in the right places will you see one of the most important birds on Long Island: the piping plover, a tiny shorebird unique to North America that has been considered threatened since 1986.

Atlantic Coast Piping Plovers

Piping plovers are small migratory shorebirds with white and sandy coloring that nearly camouflages them in their beach surroundings. The Atlantic Coast breeding population was listed as a federally threatened species in 1986 and are considered endangered within the state of New York. Their entire Atlantic Coast New York population is concentrated on Long Island beaches, where they make their nests for the spring and summer and fortify themselves for their long journey south. As you’re reading this, hundreds of plovers are preparing for their imminent migration to their wintering grounds in far-off tropical destinations like the Bahamas and Cuba.


Here you see an adult and chick plover blend in with their surroundings, USFWS.

Piping plovers love sandy open spaces for their summer homes and thrive on the tiny invertebrates that colonize decaying vegetation known as wrack. But due to major habitat loss and disturbance from beach recreation, plover populations have grown precarious.

Long Island is a crucial site for plover protection and recovery.

Arverne, for instance, is a community on the very western part of the island where there was once no hope for plover reproduction. Now, this site is on track to support the Service’s recovery goal of 575 breeding pairs for the New York-New Jersey area. This success comes after years of dedicated efforts by community members, legislators, and scientists to protect the birds and their environment.


A beach in Arverne, a success story for piping plover recovery, USFWS.

Piping Plovers of the Great Lakes

 And while Long Island habitats like these have become hotspots for the plovers, the Long Island gang is not alone in the state of New York.

There is a Great Lakes piping plover population (say that 5 times fast) that is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The majority of Great Lakes birds nest in Michigan, but scattered pairs occur in other Great Lakes states including New York. This population went from a low of 12 pairs in 1990 to a high of 75 pairs in 2015, but it remains small enough to be vulnerable to shoreline development, public recreation, predators, human disturbance and extreme weather events.

In 2015, after a 30-year hiatus, Great Lakes piping plovers returned to nest in New York State on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario.


Assessing the health of the piping plover chicks on Sandy Island Beach State Park, USFWS.

This year there was another documented successful breeding pair that took up residence at Sandy Island Beach State Park in Pulaski, New York. Four plover chicks were reared and fledged while being closely monitored by conservation scientists. The New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (Parks) designated a protected bird nesting area which allowed these plovers to have a safe place to nest and forage for food. Parks hired full time staff to educate beach goers as well as protect the plovers out on Sandy Island Beach.

Ways to Protect Plovers

 Ways we can help protect all populations of piping plovers is to continue to protect and conserve habitat. If carefully and thoughtfully planned, development can occur on shorelines without affecting nesting plovers or landowner enjoyment or access to the shoreline.


Keeping our distance from the chicks by walking in the water during a health survey, USFWS.

Invasive plants such as spotted knapweed, lime grass and phragmites rapidly take over and alter habitat along the shorelines and dunes, making it less desirable for nesting plovers. Removal of invasive plants each season will help maintain plover habitat.

As a beach goer there are some simple ways we can share the beach with piping plover adults and chicks and help them survive:

  • Follow the guidance on signs and respect all areas fenced or posted for protection of wildlife.
  • Watch these entertaining birds from a distance.
  • If pets are permitted on beaches, keep them leashed and away from birds.
  • Remove trash and food scraps, which attract animals that might eat piping plovers and their eggs.
  • Do not feed animals on or near the beach. Keep your cats indoors.
  • Volunteer as a piping plover monitor, ambassador, or educator on your local beach. Tell your friends and family how to help.

Starting in April, sites with proper nesting habitat are surveyed to locate nesting piping plovers. Once a nest is found it is protected by placing a wire enclosure over the nest. This provides protection from predators, while allowing the adult plovers to come and go for feeding. The entire nesting site is posted to inform people to keep their distance.

You can take initiative to help keep piping plovers safe and continue to allow this amazing migratory species to not only survive, but thrive.

This blog was written in partnership with Bret Serbin from the Long Island Field Office


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.

2_provided by art copolla

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.





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.