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Archive for the ‘Beach Nesting Birds’ Category

CWF Assists the State with Wintering American Oystercatcher Survey

Saturday, January 8th, 2022

By Todd Pover, Senior Wildlife Biologist

American oystercatcher winter flock.

Most people are surprised to hear that American oystercatchers are present in New Jersey in the winter. They usually associate the charismatic shorebird as a breeding species here. Our state’s wintering oystercatchers, a combination of breeders from further north and our own, are at the northern extent of the Atlantic coast wintering range.

Annual winter surveys have been conducted in New Jersey in recent years – at high tide they form large roost flocks in inlets, so they are more easily counted. Surveys are done on the ground over a 10-day period in December and this year a half-day aerial count via helicopter was also utilized to better inform the survey. This winter’s survey was organized and directed by the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program with assistance from partners, including CWF, and volunteers. CWF Biologists Meghan Kolk and Meaghan Lyon conducted several ground surveys and Todd Pover was one of three surveyors who flew the aerial survey.

As many as 1,000 individual oystercatchers can be present in the late fall/early winter along the Jersey Shore, primarily in the southern region, although counts were on the lower side this year with only 500-600 being tallied. The lower count was almost entirely the result of a very small flock within Hereford Inlet, which typically has one of the highest winter concentrations. Oystercatchers will shift further south along the Atlantic Coast during the winter when persistent extreme cold weather arrives in New Jersey, as it limits food availability. However, the weather was relatively mild leading up to the survey, so it isn’t clear why the numbers were lower this year.

A zoomed in view of wintering American oystercatcher flock through a spotting scope.

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

Monday, 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.

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New Jersey Piping Plover Breeding Population Rises Sharply in 2021

Monday, November 8th, 2021

By Todd Pover, Senior Wildlife Biologist

Pair of Piping Plovers Tending Nest. Courtesy of Northside Jim

The 2021 New Jersey piping plover breeding season was a classic “good news, bad news” result. According to the annual report released by the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program earlier this month, the breeding population increased to 137 pairs in 2021, third highest since federal listing in 1986. That is an unprecedented 33% rise over the previous year and just short of the record high of 144 pairs in 2003. On the downside, the number of chicks fledged statewide was just 0.85 chicks per pair, the lowest since 2013 and about half of the 1.50 federal recovery goal. The low productivity was largely the result of a severe Memorial Day weekend nor’easter and persistent predator activity throughout the season.

Holgate, a unit of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, hosted 46 pairs, the most in the state. This site, which is monitored and managed by CWF through a cooperative agreement with the Refuge, has seen an astounding increase in piping plover pairs in recent years, up about 2.5 times from the 18 pairs it had in 2018. CWF also monitors Little Beach, the adjacent Refuge-owned site, where another 13 pairs nested in 2021. Combined the two sites had 59 nesting pairs, a new record, by far, for the Refuge. Unfortunately, like the statewide results, productivity was very low this year at both Refuge sites, combined only 0.80 chicks fledged per pair, about half the rate just a year ago. The Memorial Day weekend nor’easter flooded those sites, wiping out most nests, and although most of the pairs nested again afterwards, many of those renests (or hatched chicks) were lost to predators, especially coyotes at Holgate.

CWF also oversaw piping plover breeding at the National Guard Training Center, which had just one pair in 2021, but that nest successfully hatched and fledged three chicks, helping boost the state average. Overall, CWF was responsible for monitoring 44% of the statewide population, giving it a significant role in helping guide conservation of this highly vulnerable state endangered (and federally threatened) species.

Although CWF does not conduct the daily on-the-ground monitoring and management of piping plovers at the Barnegat Inlet nesting site, it was a co-leader of the habitat restoration that was completed there two winters ago, and as such has had a big role in the nesting outcomes at the site. The number of pairs using the site has noticeably grown, up to five pairs in 2021 from just one pair when the project began. Productivity has also been consistently high at the restoration site and 2021 was no different with the pairs exceeding the federal recovery goal and statewide average with 1.6 chicks fledged per pair this year.

With the breeding results for 2021 now “in the books”, we are already looking forward to next year. The biggest question will be whether the state can sustain the progress towards recovery it made this year, especially given the big drop in productivity, which typically drives population. But for now, all we can do is wait until next spring to learn the answer to that question.

To read the state’s entire 2021 piping plover report:

The Mysterious Oystercatchers of the Delaware Bay: Results of the 2021 Bay-Wide Survey

Friday, October 1st, 2021

By: Meghan Kolk, CWF Wildlife Biologist

American oystercatcher foraging for oysters along the Delaware Bay. Photo credit: Meghan Kolk.

The Delaware Bay is well known for the spectacular phenomenon of spawning horseshoe crabs and migrating red knots every May, but in recent years the American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) have also discovered the allure of the Bayshore and made it their home.  American oystercatchers, a State Species of Special Concern, have been monitored and managed by CWF and the NJDFW’s Endangered and Non-game Species Program along the Atlantic coast beaches for nearly two decades, resulting in a steady population increase.  However, the population that breeds along the Bayshore, first documented in 2016, has not received the same attention and had never been fully surveyed until this year. 

CWF’s interest in this newly discovered population led to a small pilot study of a few known breeding pairs in 2018.  Then this past May, we launched a bay-wide survey of the sandy beaches of the New Jersey side of the Bay from Cape May Point up to Seabreeze, the northernmost beach in Cumberland County.  The purpose of the bay-wide survey is to determine a baseline of the number and distribution of breeding pairs along the Bayshore.  The data gathered from this survey will add to the Statewide population estimate and help determine the amount of time and funding needed to fully monitor and manage the Bay’s population.  More monitoring will be necessary to assess risk factors and reproductive success.  Reproductive success can then be maximized by managing for risk factors such human disturbance, predation and tidal flooding.

This survey was made possible due to the efforts of dedicated volunteers and could not have been completed without their help.  Unlike the Atlantic coast, the Bayshore beaches are often difficult to access, and many can only be reached by boat, making this survey more challenging.  In fact, two sites that we planned to survey proved to be too difficult to reach and were skipped for this year.  Each of the 33 remaining sites were surveyed just once within a specific timeframe, giving only a snapshot of the breeding season.  We hope to be able to collect much more information in the future when more funding for this project is available.  Based on the survey that was conducted, 13 pairs were documented at 8 different sites and 8 nests were documented at 5 different sites.

In addition to the formal survey, I was able to collect some observations as I spent every day in May on the Bay working with red knots.  I took notice of the prey items that the oystercatchers were choosing.  I often observed them feasting on oysters, which were plucked off exposed rubble at low tide.  They also spent time at the man-made oyster reefs that were constructed at several beaches to act as breakwaters to slow the erosion of beaches.  They also favored ribbed mussel beds, which become exposed as the tide recedes.  The most interesting foraging behavior I witnessed was an oystercatcher plucking a fresh slipper shell off a horseshoe crab as it came to shore to spawn.  It seems the Bay offers a variety of good food sources for a bird that mainly preys on bivalve mollusks. 

I also noticed that flocks of up to 11 oystercatchers were traveling together up and down the Bayshore.  This is a peculiar behavior since oystercatchers are highly territorial during the breeding season and are typically only seen in flocks once the breeding season is over.  Could it be that the Bayshore is a popular spot for non-breeding young adults to hang out? 

So much more research is needed to answer the many questions we have about the mysterious Bayshore oystercatchers. 

Barnegat Light Habitat Restoration: Measuring Success by More Than Just the Numbers

Wednesday, September 8th, 2021

By Todd Pover, Senior Wildlife Biologist

Pi Patel, one of the eight piping plovers chicks that fledged from the Barnegat Inlet Restoration site in 2021. Photo courtesy of Matt Reitinger.

The success of a habitat restoration project is typically measured in numbers, number of acres restored, the abundance of target species, breeding success of the wildlife using it, that sort of thing. And we certainly have good numbers for the Barnegat Light Habitat Restoration Project… 40 acres restored, including two foraging pond, five pairs of piping plovers using the site this year, a substantial increase from one pair just two years ago, and breeding success above the federal recovery goal and well above the state average for two years running since the project was fully completed.

But there’s more to the success than numbers, it can also be told through names. So first a disclaimer; we name our banded piping plovers in New Jersey. This practice is sometimes frowned upon by other researchers who fear anthropomorphism undermines their scientific credibility or leads to misunderstanding about biological processes.  Point taken, but in the case of piping plovers, we believe naming can potentially lead to better engagement in their conservation through dynamic outreach, much the way Monty and Rose, Chicago’s famous plovers have garnered huge public support. Also, in New Jersey our banded plovers typically have four bands, so it is much easier for our monitoring staff to identify and communicate about a bird named “Major Tom” than orange over light blue (left), orange over black (right). Finally, some people are just plain curmudgeons about this issue, but endangered species recovery work is hard, so having a little fun with it isn’t such an awful thing! So, let’s get to the names and the “stories” they tell.

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