Theresa Laverty, Field Technician, Beach Nesting Bird Project
It’s another cloudy day and I scan the beach with my binoculars. No dogs. Only a handful of fishermen dot the water line. I return my focus to the small area towards the dune line, where a high concentration of shells lies. Look for two intact clamshells just in line with where the beach entrance should be. Without the binoculars, I find the location. It is not until I use my binoculars, however, do I spot the Piping Plover incubating a four-egg nest in that exact spot. Camouflage works wonders, I remind myself.
Since late April, I have been working as a seasonal beach nesting bird field technician. Our four main species of focus are Piping Plover, American Oystercatcher, Least Tern, and Black Skimmer. While the latter two species form colonies where they lay their eggs, the former two species defend territories as pairs. All four can be found on the same beach, however, which leads to lots of interesting interspecific and intraspecific interactions. Oystercatchers chasing plovers, terns dive bombing oystercatchers, etc., etc.… My job is not focused on those behaviors, however. My tasks include bimonthly surveys of the tern/skimmer colonies and recording the nesting success of plovers and oystercatchers. How many eggs are laid, how many eggs are predated, how many eggs hatch, how many chicks are predated, and, everyone’s favorite scenario, how many chicks fledge (i.e. reach the stage where they can fly)? Some of the birds are also banded, which allows for individual identification and adds another layer to nesting success when the birds return year after year.
A big part of my job is also dealing with the public, and as with any field site, there are those that appreciate what I do and those that are against it. While I prefer the former, I am well aware of the arguments from both sides having grown up in Ocean City myself. I am particularly interested in human-wildlife interactions, so I really appreciate the opportunity to work with the local community. I began working in the field of ecology and conservation biology in college, but most of my previous work has been international. I looked at crocodilian diets in Peru, studied the behavior of mountain gorillas in Uganda, researched the effects of landscape management on carnivore and wildlife populations in Kenya’s savannas, but this has been my first experience working with birds and working in what is basically my backyard.
With chicks now hatching up and down the New Jersey coastline, I feel busier than ever trying to ensure these little guys have a chance to beat the odds and make it to fledging. Some days that means a lot of physical work- expanding fenced off areas to give them a little more of a buffer between the public- or sometimes it means a lot of social interaction- enforcing the law of no dogs on the beach or keeping children from chasing after the chicks at the water’s edge, where the birds feed. I know that when I leave New Jersey to begin graduate school this August, it will be hard to say goodbye to an amazing summer back home. This is an incredible opportunity to apply my skill set and wildlife conservation goals back here at home and watch these often overlooked birds through this nesting season and hope for continued success in the years to come.