Tag Archives: suny-esf

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/

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.

Pots of young American hart's-tongue fern sporophytes. Once the plants grow larger and are able to withstand the changing temperatures, they will be planted at Clark Reservation, or another appropriate site. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

New York plant pride

I'm Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You'll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York. USFWS photo with Bethany holding a bog turtle

I’m Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You’ll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York.

Are a plant enthusiast? (Or maybe you have a lot of New York pride). Either way, you’ll be happy to know that our state is home to the largest population of American hart’s-tongue fern in the entire country! 

This fern was placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1993 after quarrying operations and collecting decimated its population. Quarries operated at the same sites as several American hart’s-tongue fern locations between 1924 and 1935, destroying habitat in those areas. The fern was also historically very popular as an ornamental plant because of its unique size and shape.

Now, it’s found in only 28 locations across the U.S., with about 70 percent of the population in New York. 

Our office is responsible for monitoring and protecting American hart’s-tongue fern populations across the country, and we teamed with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry to conduct exciting new research.  We’re trying to cultivate plants in the lab and plant them at suitable sites in New York, and eventually in other states.

Dr. Danilo Fernando and Dr. Donald Leopold started their project two years ago with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative administered by our office.

Dr. Danilo Fernando checking his plants at the SUNY-ESF lab. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Dr. Danilo Fernando checking his plants at the SUNY-ESF lab. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Here’s the process.

  • Spores (like fern seeds) were taken from Clark Reservation, near Syracuse, N.Y., and were planted in petri dishes in a temperature and light-controlled lab.
  • The spores grow into gametophytes: small heart-shaped, leaf-like structures that contain sperm and egg cells; this allows the gametophyte to reproduce on its own.
  • The gametophyte will release sperm and expose the egg.
  • Once fertilized, the egg forms into a zygote that will develop a root, stem and leaf that extend through the gap at the top of the gametophyte.
  • It’s now a sporophyte (a mature plant that produces spores) and is what we recognize when we see a fern.
Petri dishes full of American hart's-tongue fern gametophytes. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Petri dishes full of American hart’s-tongue fern gametophytes. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

But that’s not where the work ends. Once a sporophyte emerges, it is removed from the petri dish, placed in an individual pot where Dr. Fernando can measure its growth, and returned to another temperature and light-controlled room with other sporophytes. The room temperature resembles seasons, and Dr. Fernando monitors how well the sporophytes respond to the changing temperatures.

Once the sporophytes mature, Dr. Fernando will transfer the pots to a greenhouse located on top of SUNY-ESF’s Illick Hall (the same building the lab is located in). There, the plants will be given the opportunity to respond to irregular temperature fluctuations, similar to what they will experience when transplanted. If they don’t respond well, he can simply transfer the sporophytes back to the lab until they are ready to try again.

“If I leave the sporophytes outside too soon when they are not ready, the entire two year experiment will be a waste, so I want to take as much care as possible,” Fernando explained.

He hopes the sporophytes will be ready for planting in Clark Reservation or another site by next summer.

Pots of young American hart's-tongue fern sporophytes. Once the plants grow larger and are able to withstand the changing temperatures, they will be planted at Clark Reservation, or another appropriate site. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Pots of young American hart’s-tongue fern sporophytes. Once the plants grow larger and are able to withstand the changing temperatures, they will be planted at Clark Reservation, or another appropriate site. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Meanwhile, Dr. Leopold is developing models of the fern’s habitat based on the different soil, forest, and climatic variables that influence its growth and reproduction across New York. Researchers can then use GIS to match the suitable site characteristics of Clark Reservation with additional areas that can support the plant.

If all goes well, the experiment will be repeated in other states that were historically home to the fern. With the work of researchers like Dr. Fernando and Dr. Leopold, and support from the public, the plant could once again grow wild across the U.S.

Let’s keep New York beautiful and wild by preserving American hart’s-tongue fern!