Conserve Wildlife Blog

A Year of Surprises – New Jersey’s 2021 Beach Nesting Bird Season

January 3rd, 2022

By Todd Pover, Senior Wildlife Biologist

One of the hundreds of least tern chicks at the Pt. Pleasant colony in 2021. Courtesy of Lindsay McNamara.

With 2021 coming to an end, we thought it would be fun to look back at this year’s beach nesting bird season in New Jersey, focusing on some of the surprises.

At the top of the list is the huge jump in our piping plover breeding population, up to 137 pairs from just 103 in 2020, an unprecedented 33% increase in one year and the third highest on record for the state since federal listing. This was a much-needed bump, as productivity has been high over the past few years, but we weren’t seeing any sustained growth in the population as a result as would be typical. So, when the final pair number was tallied this year, we were both relieved and surprised at how big it was! The challenge now will be to maintain that higher level or increase it even more, as it has fluctuated up and down quite a bit in recent years.

Along the same lines was the increase in piping plovers at Holgate, a site monitored and managed by CWF on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. There were 46 nesting pairs at Holgate in 2021, up from 29 in 2020; it is now the site with the most pairs, by far, in the state. The habitat at Holgate was greatly enhanced for plovers by Superstorm Sandy back in 2012, but we still didn’t expect that the population would nearly quadruple in the time since the storm.

Point Pleasant – this inlet location is a “head-scratcher” – one of our tiniest sites acreage-wise, as well as one of the most highly disturbed by human recreation and related activities, but somehow it managed to produce some of our best results for colonial nesters in 2021. It had the most least tern fledglings – 197 – by far, of any site in the state, just over 80% of the statewide total. It produced 90 black skimmer fledglings, as well, part of a moderately high productivity for this species in the state this year. The biggest surprise here, and a sight to marvel if you were lucky to see it, was how over 200 pairs of least terns and the other nesters crammed into such a small site to begin with. Interestingly, this year the site also had the highest density of seabeach amaranth, an endangered plant that CWF helps monitor.

Speaking of sites where we wouldn’t expect nesting birds…Seaside Park had not just one but two pairs of nesting piping plovers in 2021, the first time plovers nested on this municipality’s busy beach since regular statewide monitoring began nearly four decades ago. If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, a total of four chicks fledged from the two pairs, one of the best productivity rates in the state!!

Most years, piping plovers nest at a few new or long-dormant sites and their discovery is typically one of the highlights of the breeding season – 2021 saw a particularly high number of these “new” sites. Among the pleasant surprises were Strathmere and Two-Mile Beach (both the Cape May NWR and USCG portions). Cape May County was once a hot spot for piping plovers in the state, but its population had been in a long decline; recolonization of these new sites in 2021 was part of a big rebound for the county’s piping plovers, up to 15 pairs now after a low of just 3 pairs in 2018.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2021 involved the creation of an entirely new and largely undisturbed site – a rarity in New Jersey. An island, dubbed Horseshoe Island because of its shape, has been emerging just off the mid-coast of the state over the past few years. In 2021 it was high and large enough to host one of the biggest least tern colonies in the state, as well as common tern and black skimmer colonies. If that weren’t enough, a small royal tern colony also eventually formed, the northernmost documented colony for this species in the hemisphere. CWF played a major role in the discovery of the nesting this year, and although the island is vulnerable to storms and tides, so we don’t know how long it will persist, CWF hopes to be part of the monitoring and protection of this important site moving forward.

The success of another newly created breeding site wasn’t so much a surprise – it was specifically designed to benefit piping plovers – but the Barnegat Light Habitat Restoration, a project CWF helps lead, continued to perform above expectations in 2021. The site has gone from one to five breeding pairs of piping plovers since completion in 2019 and this year least terns, common terns, and black skimmers nested at the site for the first time in over a decade.

You may have noticed that American oystercatchers have not been mentioned yet, despite being one of the most loved of our coastal bird species. Oystercatchers did not have a particularly good year in 2021, productivity was very low overall due to a severe Memorial Day weekend nor’easter and high predator activity. Nonetheless, oystercatchers continue to keep us “on our toes” as they pop up in new and unexpected places. The steady increase of pairs nesting on our Atlantic Coast beaches continued in 2021; the number of pairs has nearly tripled on the sandy barrier beaches of New Jersey since regular monitoring began in 2003 when only about 50 pairs were recorded. CWF also did a first-ever Delaware Bay wide survey for American oystercatchers in 2021; 13 breeding pairs were found at eight sites, more than expected, so another surprise.

One thing that certainly isn’t a surprise is the dedication and enthusiasm exhibited by the volunteers, staff, and partners working on the beach nesting bird project all along the New Jersey coast – year after year we’ve been witness to (and part of) this outpouring of love for these highly at-risk birds and it is something we never take for granted. Thanks to all involved and we can’t wait to see what new surprises 2022 brings for beach nesting birds!

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3 Responses to “A Year of Surprises – New Jersey’s 2021 Beach Nesting Bird Season”

  1. Barb McKee says:

    What great news! This mountains-rivers-forests raptor volunteer just loves hearing that our shore birds are doing so well too. I am so happy to hear that these beautiful little birds are increasing and had a great year! I love the times I have had the opportunity to spend along the shore! It is so different than watching raptors where we volunteer, but no less exciting and definitely as worthwhile! Thank you and congratulations to all who volunteer on the beaches!

  2. Todd Pover says:

    Thanks Barb! Hopefully we can sustain that population increase next year, that has been a challenge for piping plovers in New Jersey over the years. It was fun showing you our beachnesters and although I know you’ll always be a “mountains-rivers-forests-raptors” lover, first and foremost, it is nice to know you appreciate our beach birds too.

  3. Teri Bowers says:

    Great read and some great news for a season full of ups and downs.
    Thanks for all of your hard work and dedication.
    Countdown to 2022 season!!!

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