Piping Plover Nesting Protection

Harwich Port, Massachusetts

Charadrius melodus
"Its note is a whistled syllable. the loveliest musical noted sounded by any North Atlantic bird"

Henry Beston

HARWICH PORT - (03/15/04) For its eighteenth consecutive year, the Coastal Waterbird Program is planning for this season's protection efforts of nesting terns and Piping Plovers at more than 60 beaches in the Commonwealth. As one of the principal cooperators in the state's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, our annual efforts help protect approximately 20 percent of the terns and 50 percent of the Piping Plovers nesting in Massachusetts.In Harwich, this site is Merkel Beach/Wychmere Harbor. In 2004, four pairs of plovers nested on these beaches and fledged 10 chicks! However, it is impossible to anticipate where or if the pairs will nest this season. As soon as we identify a location, we will contact all parties involved.

Permmission has been granted to continue this important conservation work in accordance with state and federal guidelines. Our staff and interns as in previous years, will assist your beach management personnel post and monitor the nesting areas for these rare species upon their arrival from their wintering grounds. The roped off areas will be no larger than necessary to protect these rare birds' nests and conform to state and federal guidelines. These materials will be removed at the close of the nesting season, or sooner if the birds abandon the site.

For further information regarding Massachusetts state guidelines for barrier beach management, please contact the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and/or the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Behavior: Piping plovers probably winter in the southern and southeastern U.S., Mexico and a few Caribbean islands.

Appearance: Small, stocky shorebirds, extremely well camouflaged on sand or pebble beaches.

Food: Small insects, grasshoppers on the surface of the sand along the shoreline.

Breeding: On Cape Cod, piping plovers scrape out small, shallow nests in bare areas of sand, small pebbles or gravel. They prefer shorelines of prairie lakes and sloughs with heavy concentrations of mineral salts. In May, the female usually lays four eggs, one every other day. Both adults take turns incubating the eggs until they hatch 28 days later. The young birds can fly by mid July. Risk factors: Piping plovers compete with people for open sand and pebble beaches, particularly in June and July when young birds are active. Human activity on a beach can result in adult birds being unable to start a nest or abandoning their eggs or young.

If you want to report a piping plover nest that needs protection in Harwich please call the Natural Resources Department (Harbormasters Office) at 508-430-7532.

For information on federal guidelines, contact the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If you have any questions about this work, please contact Matthew Bailey at 508-362-7475 (P.O. Box 275 Cummaquid, MA 02637) or Ellen Jedrey, Senior Biologist, Mass Audubon

Last Updated on 01/22/06
By Thomas Leach
Email: harbor@town.harwich.ma.us

Plover breeding affected by 2005 storms

By Rich Eldred, The Cape Codder

CAPE COD - (01/20/06) It was a very good year for Harry Potter, Mariah Carey and the Chicago White Sox, but 2005 wasn’t so good for piping plovers. The federally threatened birds had their worst breeding season on record, since they were first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1987. "They are producing about one chick per pair and the number scientists have determined they need for the population to be stable is 1.24 per pair," observed Andrea Jones, director of Massachusetts Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program. "What we’re hoping for is that this is just a blip in the map and that populations will all recover. But before the populations all recover we have to be very vigilant."

While no couple will produce 1.24 chicks, it works out to five chicks for every four pairs. "Once you’re below that, the population is not able to maintain itself," Jones said. "This is what we’ve seen the past three to four years." The Audubon Society doesn’t monitor every plover nest in the state; many are on federal land, and the state will come up with the final number but, based on preliminary data from 91 sites and 228 nests, each pair produced 1.07 chicks, the lowest total in 20 years. "We monitor about 50 percent of the state’s plover population," Jones said. "We also do terns and oyster-catchers."

Statewide, the number of nesting pairs fell from 490 to about 475. But it wasn’t the lower number of birds that produced the drop-off. "The main reason this was a bad year was the spring storms," Jones said. "They arrived when the birds were laying eggs. They dumped sand on the beach and washed away nests. The protective fencing we put up was washed away and so were all the eggs."

Piping plovers are resilient but unfortunately so was the bad weather. "It was two late May nor’easters," recalled Ellen Jedrey, the waterbird program’s assistant director. Jedrey is based at the Long Pasture Sanctuary in Osterville. "The beaches that were most affected were the ones facing north and east," she said. "Just after they laid a second clutch of eggs we had a second nor’easter so they lost the eggs again," Jones explained. "The South Shore was hit bad, so was Sandwich and parts of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The south-facing beaches didn’t do as badly. The birds ended up nesting three or four times." That’s a lot of work for the plover pairs and when they finally hatched to chicks, it was beach season. "It was much later in the season when more people were coming to the beach, and dogs, etc. Normally, the chicks hatch by the Fourth of July," Jones noted. "This year the whole nesting season was mixed up and they reared very few young."

Keeping watch on Cape Cod
Jones coordinates all the plover surveillance from the Audubon Sanctuary in Marshfield. "We monitor sites from (Plum Island) to Cape Cod, to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard," Jedrey said. "We cover the entire coastline of Sandwich, Dennis and Chatham and we have sites in Barnstable, Yarmouth, Provincetown, Wellfleet and other towns." The program has 25 interns and more than 50 volunteers involved in keeping an eye on plovers. The watchers go out daily, unless it’s raining or too hot, from April to late August. "The nests are difficult to find," Jedrey said. "Once we find them, we put up fencing and also put up signs. We watch the nest for another month and after hatching, we watch the chicks for 26 days, till they can fly." When the chick can fly it’s listed as "fledged."

South Beach largest population
Sampson’s Island in Osterville had the most successful nesting as 18 pairs of plovers produced 38 chicks (2.11 per pair). The worst fledging rates were on north- and east-facing beaches, such as in Plymouth where 22 pairs reared only three chicks.

Capewide, 228 pairs fledged 245 chicks
"The number of chicks produced has been decreasing but because they are long lived birds, you probably won’t see it show up in the population for another few years," Jedrey said. Plovers can live from eight to 14 years.

South Beach in Chatham has the largest piping plover population, and 37 pairs produced 49 chicks there despite shifting sands that opened the beach to predators. "Foxes are becoming a large problem," Jones said. "They’re attracted to beaches. Perhaps they’re pushed out of other areas. The birds are there, especially terns. Skunks are also a problem; they’re attracted by trash. Some places have coyotes but foxes are one of the biggest problems." "On a local scale it’s been predation by coyotes, foxes, gulls, skunks, crows, you name it," Jedrey said. "All of the predators out there do quite a number on birds." While piping plovers are relatively widespread, Massachusetts is plover central. "They range from Newfoundland to North Carolina but Massachusetts is the most important state," declared Jones. "One-third of the Atlantic population is here. Plum Island (in Ipswich) is important; they’re all along the coast on sandy barrier beaches." The Atlantic coast tally is around 1,600 pairs. There’s also a small Great Lakes group.

Overall, the federal listing has been good for the birds.
"The numbers have gone up fourfold. When we started, there were 120 pairs in the state; now there are around 500, and the terns have gone up also," Jones said. Things could be a lot worse. "I am still optimistic," Jones reflected. "A lot of people are working hard to protect these birds and to protect their coastal habitats. I’m more upbeat than I would be in other parts of the country, where fewer people are involved in shorebird protection."