Conserve Wildlife Blog

Beachcombing for Plovers

September 15th, 2022

By Amy Kopec
CWF Beach Nesting Bird Field Technician

People usually go to the beach looking for something; whether it’s shells, sea glass, or just some relaxation and better tan lines. I too am searching for something when I walk Holgate, a three and a half mile stretch of National Wildlife Refuge beach on the south end of New Jersey’s Long Beach Island. And while I do end up with a tan and some old glass bottles, that’s not really what I’m there for. What I’m actually looking for can be quite a bit harder to find.

The author spent most of the summer playing “hide and seek” trying to find these piping plover chicks.
Photo courtesy of Bill Dalton.

Although estimates are hard to come by, a recent NPR segment claimed there are only about 8,000 Piping Plovers left in the world. As a designated endangered species, these beach nesting birds are given certain legal protections, and the states they are found in receive funding for research and conservation. These studies are where I come in. Over the last three summers, I have worked in two different states (Massachusetts and New Jersey) monitoring and studying Piping Plovers as they nest. These little birds are up against a lot of challenges during their breeding season–from habitat loss to flooding to predation. There is no easy solution for the recovery of this species. The variable nature of beaches from one season to the next means these birds have to be carefully monitored. And each year I seem to encounter something new while I’m searching the beach.

The season starts off slow. Atlantic Coast Piping Plovers overwinter on beaches from North Carolina to as far south as the Bahamas. The long flight back north leaves them hungry, so they gather along the water to try and eat as many little invertebrates as they can before the ordeal of nesting. These birds are very attached to their breeding areas, and usually nest on the same beach–if not within the same small territory–year after year. This was the first summer I encountered a lot of banded birds, and so I spent much of April and early May resighting them. I then was able to put their band combinations into the Nest Story database we use to see who had come back from last year. Most of the birds at Holgate are banded with four colored bands, two on each upper leg. When read top to bottom, left to right, they form a code unique to a single bird. To make it easier to refer to our local plovers, many of the banded ones on Holgate have also been given names. So, spotting the combination: dark blue, white, orange, light blue, and entering it into the database will inform the spotter that the bird before them is Toe Jam, and that he has nested on this beach since 2019.

A Piping Plover foraging on the dark sand of the intertidal is pretty easy to spot if you know what to look for. But around mid-May they start nesting, and then the real scavenger hunt begins. Piping Plovers rely almost exclusively on camouflage to protect themselves and their offspring. The birds themselves are sand colored on the top with white bellies. The only real dash of color is the orange of their legs or beak. They also have black rings around their necks and another line of black along their foreheads. But that’s not much help when they’re sitting on the sand with their butt to you. Piping Plover nests are even better disguised. They’re not even really nests, but small divots dug into the sand and sometimes lined with shells. The eggs themselves are also a pale tan color, with small darker speckles. I’ve been working with these birds for three years and I’m still terrified of accidentally stepping on a nest–they blend in so well!

A well camouflaged piping plover nest, one of the beach “treasures” the author was searching for this summer.
Photo courtesy of Amy Kopec

Thankfully plovers usually give notice when I walk into their territory. A bird with a nest will start hounding me with short and high-pitched warning peeps. They will also often fake a broken wing, dragging themselves across the sand and flapping pathetically. The goal of both these behaviors is to distract a predator and lead them away from the nest before flying off. As I am smarter than the average coyote, I know it’s a ploy and often use it as a sign to slow down and check the area carefully. If the wind is calm that day, I can also use tracks to help my search. Piping Plovers always walk onto their nest, and if conditions are good, I can follow the little highways of three-toed footprints all the way to the eggs. Combine it with a knowledge of what specific areas plovers’ nest in, and all the trial nests (or scrapes) the pair has dug out earlier this year and Bingo…a new nest is found to record, number, and monitor.

Piping Plovers will incubate their eggs for about twenty-seven days before they hatch, both the male and female taking the time to sit on the nest. During that time, my coworkers and I check the nests about five days a week, ensuring that the eggs haven’t been eaten, or buried, or flooded by a high tide. Sometimes we are able to help out by putting a circle of metal fencing around the nest with a net over top. These “exclosures” prevent mammalian predators like raccoons or foxes from eating the eggs, but conversely, can make the adults a more obvious target for avian predators like owls. With a peregrine falcon frequenting Holgate this summer, we weren’t able to exclose any of the nests on the beach. Therefore we had to keep a closer eye out for signs of mammalian predators. While in the past, I’ve seen raccoon, coyote and fox tracks leading up to an emptied nest bowl, this was the first year I began seeing nests predated by an opossum. I would have much preferred that North America’s only marsupial stuck to eating ticks!

If the eggs survive to hatching, the games of chick hide-and-seek can begin. This is the best, albeit hardest time of year. Piping Plover chicks are what ornithologists call “precocious.” They are fully covered in downy feathers at hatching, and have open eyes. Within a few hours of emerging from their eggs, they are able to get up and move around, foraging for all their own food. Finding cotton balls running around on toothpicks is hard on a beach as big as Holgate. Especially since the cotton balls are also the same color as the sand and know to sit down and stay still if there’s danger in the area. Thankfully, they are warned of the danger by a peep or two from their parents, who stay nearby and guide them to good foraging spots. Once I find the parents, it’s a matter of sitting back in the dunes where they can forget about me, and waiting for the chicks to pop back up and start bopping around again. And it helps that most of the time, a certain brood of chicks will stay in a certain area of the beach. In about twenty-five days these chicks will quadruple in size and grow adult feathers. Once a chick reaches the end of that time period-or we see it flying- it’s considered fledged and ready to go wherever its wings will take it.

In order for a population to grow, more of a species have to be born than die. But it doesn’t help if those that are born die in infancy, which is why it’s so important for biologists like me to monitor plover chicks to fledging. A fledgling has not quite reached sexual maturity (that isn’t until it’s one year old) but it’s far more likely to survive as a fully flighted adult than as a tiny chick. For these reasons, productivity, or the average number of chicks fledged per nesting pair, is an important statistic in the recovery efforts of Piping Plovers. The federal goal for Piping Plover recovery projects is an average of 1.5 fledglings per pair, a number that will allow the population to increase steadily. Unfortunately, it’s a surprisingly hard goal to reach. Pretty much anything that can eat a plover chick or egg will, and weather events like spring storms can wipe out dozens of nests. Yet these birds will keep trying to nest and hatch eggs until July-when starting over would delay their migration far too much. So, most of my job is doing everything in my power to help them out.

Monitoring Piping Plovers is so much more than wandering a beach all summer. It’s walking miles to find their nests, and spending hours squinting through a scope to try and find a chick that just has to be stashed in the grass the parents are peeping around. It’s not easy, and it’s not always fun. There are greenheads, and scorching afternoons, and disgruntled trespassers onto closed areas of the beach. There are nests that are lost and chicks that disappear forever. But every piece of data I collect, every sighting I put in gives us information about the lives and status of these rare birds, and helps to save them. Without active monitoring these birds will likely be lost to us forever. And I think Piping Plover are more than worth saving. They’re fuzzy, feisty, cute and occasionally clumsy. They’re a sign of a healthy beach ecosystem, and entertaining to watch. You just have to search for them.

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2 Responses to “Beachcombing for Plovers”

  1. Janice King says:

    Thank you for your dedication.

  2. John H. King says:

    Thank you so much for your hard work this spring and summer, Amy! Much appreciated. Scorching heat, hungry greenheads, nasty humans…you endured and overcame the Trials by Fire.

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