A HAPPY ENDING TO A TOUGH YEAR
By Todd Pover, Beach Nesting Bird Project Manager
There is no way to sugar coat it – this has not been a stellar year for piping plovers in New Jersey. Due to a number of ill-timed severe storms, high tides, and heat waves, chick productivity was low this year. There was some comfort in knowing that these events were largely out of our control, so at least it wasn’t something we could have prevented. At the same time, there is a nagging feeling that years such as this are the new “normal” as we enter an era of climate change where more extreme weather is predicted.
While there were a number of tough moments throughout the season, one incident was especially frustrating for the staff. Several days after a piping plover chick reached its fledge (flying) date at Cape May Point State Park, where it had battled marauding crows for over a month, CWFNJ field technician Sarah Scheffer discovered the fledgling dragging its wing. This is never a good sign – usually it indicates a broken wing. Fortunately, because we monitor the site daily, we caught the problem immediately.
So, along with our partners at the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife – Endangered and Nongame Species Program, we set out to capture the bird the very next day. This involved a mixed bag of emotions; taking the chick from its natal site, with its distressed parents peeping as we took it away was heartbreaking to see and hear, but in this case we knew it was the best option. Once in hand, we transported the bird to Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Delaware, one of the most respected rehab facilities in the country.
And so the rollercoaster ride began. The initial diagnosis was a minor fracture, but after x-rays things looked less promising – the chances given of the bird ever flying again were just 50/50. It also had other injuries consistent with a predator attack, but a round of antibiotics took care of that. There was good news as the bird steadily gained weight and remained active and alert. Even so, we weren’t overly optimistic as none of the piping plovers we had taken in for rehab in the past had survived or healed to the point of being released. A zoo placement is fine for educational purposes, but the point of this rehab and our program focus in general is to recover species in the wild.
So we were both a little surprised and obviously ecstatic when we got the call last week that the bird was flying and ready to be released! One month after going in for care, we took the piping plover out to Cape May NWR-2 Mile Beach Unit for a staff release “party”. It turned out to be a short celebration – the bird could fly even better than we hoped and immediately flew out of sight over the dunes – no lingering around to say “thank you”!
Certainly, species recovery won’t hinge on a single bird making it back into the wild population, but in a year when nothing seemed to go right, and we had to work extra hard for every single fledgling, this was a ray of light and a happy ending to our otherwise difficult season.