Conserve Wildlife Blog

Annual Preparations for Piping Plovers Return to NGTC

April 10th, 2023

by Sherry Tirgrath, Wildlife Biologist

Each year in the early spring, piping plovers migrate north to their breeding range, which spans from North Carolina to the Canadian island of Newfoundland. The New Jersey coastline has historically been integral for breeding birds to forage and raise chicks, although suitable habitat is becoming more and more of a rarity in the state. The increase in development, as well as the impact of storms, shoreline erosion and climate change, have permanently altered much of the Jersey shore. Nesting habitat for beach-nesting birds is limited, and predators with exploding populations benefiting from human presence along the coast, make their homes among the beach vegetation and nearby man-made domiciles. Natural beaches with minimal recreational usage are extremely valuable for beach-nesting birds in NJ, with most located along the southern shores. However, some Monmouth County beaches like the National Guard Training Center beach in Sea Girt, are managed to protect the natural resources that are present and continue to host nesting plovers annually. 

The NGTC beach is monitored throughout the year by Conserve Wildlife Foundation biologists assigned to the duty as part of the Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan for the site, established by the NJ Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA). Included in that plan are various surveys, practices and regulations designed to protect vulnerable species and habitats on the site while still allowing public recreation and beach maintenance to occur. The south half of the beach is a popular bathing beach that is free to military, veterans, police, and their families. The north half is primarily designated as natural beach where recreation is not encouraged. Piping plovers have nested in the Northern Protection Area for the last four years, from 2019 to 2022, with the same resident pair returning each year to reclaim their territory. Piping plovers “Joey” and “Hamlet” had a bitter end to their long-term relationship last year when Hamlet was found deceased, likely killed by an avian predator. Joey attempted to renest with a new female he met later in the season but was unsuccessful. Eventually, both birds moved on. However, given that he survived his winter retreat, Joey may return to the NGTC for 2023 and try to attract a new mate.

In order to prepare for Joey, or any other plovers or beach-nesting birds, multiple management efforts have occurred to make the site more desirable for nesting. Vegetation on the beach is necessary for a healthy, natural coastal ecosystem. However, vegetation that is too dense leaves little space for beach-nesting birds, which prefer open areas of sandy beach with patchy vegetation for chicks to hide in. Clearing of vegetation occurs in the late winter within the back section of the rare species protection area, so birds can nest out of sight of the public but still have plenty of open space for choosing where to lay their eggs. In addition to clearing vegetation, large amounts of shell fragments are deposited in the cleared area for the beach-nesting birds to use. Piping plovers make their nests directly in the sand by scraping out a bowl-shaped depression. The sand scrape is then decorated with pieces of shell and rock, as a way to camouflage the eggs from predators. By providing the shell fragments and making them easily accessible, the plovers expend less energy building their nests and have a better chance of hatching their eggs. The protection area is pre-fenced ahead of the birds arrival and signage is affixed to the fencing so the public knows why the area is off-limits.

Shell fragments are deposited on the beach.

There also exists the municipal side of natural resource protection at the NGTC. Around the same time that the protection area is prepped, the tenants of the training center, as well as important representatives from the neighboring municipalities, are briefed on the protection measures and restrictions that will be implemented on the beach once rare species are present. These restrictions include prohibiting beach raking and driving near the protection area, and limiting military and police training that may disturb the birds. Natural resource specialists from DMAVA, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, inc. (VHB) and Stockton University Environmental Internship Program (SUEIP) have partnered with CWFNJ biologists to prepare the site for the beach-nesting birds’ spring arrival. With some luck and a lot of diligent work, 2023 may be a successful season for rare species at the NGTC.

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