Conserve Wildlife Blog

Beach Nesting Birds- an Insider’s Look from CWF’s Seasonal Monitors

June 30th, 2023

By Todd Pover, Senior Wildlife Biologist

With about 50 pairs of both piping plovers and American oystercatchers nesting this year at Holgate, a unit of the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, CWF’s seasonal staff that monitors breeding activity for the Refuge has been working at a non-stop pace. We asked them to take a short break from their field tasks to reflect on their season, for some this is their first experience with beach nesting birds. Specifically, they were asked about their favorite and most surprising things about the birds, so far. Read their responses below, including a little twist of the “least favorite” thing in one case.

CWF’s 2023 beach nesting bird monitoring crew for Edwin B. Forsythe NWR and Horseshoe Island.
Morgan Phillips, Gianna Canale, Audrey Randazzo, Amy Kopec, Dakota Bell (l to r).

Morgan Phillip

One of my favorite things about beach nesting birds (aside from how adorable they are) is how fearless and feisty they can be. For example, when approaching a piping plover’s nest, an adult will likely peep at you (“hey what are you doing near my nest”), and often do a display called “broken-wing” to try to get your attention away from the nest. When I saw it for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel bad for causing them to feel like they needed to do that, I wish that they could understand we are only trying to help. While this display is normal when it comes to defending the nest, a few individuals have gone to more extreme measures. Some piping plovers will follow you and even get very close to you (close enough to be on your shoe) to ensure you don’t harm the nest, it’s more intimidating than it sounds. The fact that these birds that are much smaller compared to a human are willing to put it all on the line in hopes of passing on their genes blows my mind and shows how devoted they are.

The most surprising part about being a beach nesting bird technician so far is truly how challenging it can be to find the nests. Don’t get me wrong, I expected it to be challenging and that’s the point so it’s difficult for predators to find them. However, even after knowing what to look for and even checking the same nest for days at a time, some days it is just harder to find them. Some of the factors that could contribute to this are wind and the angle you approach the nest. I have found that once you find a nest, it is one of those things you can’t “unsee”, you just have to find it first. The fact that seasoned experts can still be challenged with nest searching sometimes, proves how easy it could be for a nest to accidentally get stepped on. This is why beach closures for nesting season are so important and can make a difference in terms of nesting success.

Gianna Canale

I started this job not really knowing what to expect but excited about all that it could entail. The most surprising thing about the project is the day to day and how it can vary. As someone who does better in a little bit of chaos, having a schedule that can change a day or two or even a few hours before has been fun – it’s a challenge. It doesn’t change every day, but on the days that it does, it can be exciting but also stressful. The changes can make the day go by really fast. You might have less time to survey and check nests, might have more time, or might even end up on another beach surveying! The birds that we monitor can also contribute to the chaos. All of their personalities are unique. Some birds greet you as soon as you enter their territory, other birds broken-wing and peep at you no matter how close to their nest you are. Some even follow after checking a nest! Crazy birds.

Even with the crazy that the birds can add to the day, getting to see them and their personalities is one of my favorite parts of the job. With oystercatchers, trying to find their chicks or see if the adults are banded can make the adults a little stressed. Sometimes they’ll side-eye you, trying to figure out what’s going on, what you’re doing. You look through the scope to find the bird and it’s already looking at you. With both plovers and oystercatchers, getting to see the chicks grow each and some of their personality start to come through is entertaining. It can be really startling when you’re at different places each day and then suddenly the little chicks that you thought you left and are expecting to find are like bird teenagers now.

Audrey Randazzo

This season is my first time working with the CWF focusing on the beach nesting shorebird project. Many aspects of this job have been new and exciting for me. I have never worked directly with piping plovers or American oystercatchers before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this job. What is most surprising is the volume of plovers and oystercatchers. There are over 50 pairs of each that I help monitor on this project. It is wonderful getting to see that many plovers on one large beach. Holgate is one of the most important habitats for these threatened and endangered shorebirds. After Superstorm Sandy hit, the storm created an almost perfect habitat for these birds. A great combination of ideal nesting and foraging spots, explaining why there are so many pairs here. It truly is a

privilege to be working on this project.

My favorite thing about the job is being able to view these little birds’ behaviors in their natural habitat, something that may be hard to observe without being in this position. Monitoring nests every day really allows you the honor of getting to know the birds themselves. Getting to follow the growth of a nest from its first egg to well after they have hatched is a phenomenal experience. The excitement you get after finding a nest with newly hatched babies is unlike any other. Having to find the chicks when they are up and running around can be tedious. However, it can also be like a game of “Where’s Waldo”. Trying to find a little ball of fluff hiding in a large dune. Amazingly, I get to spend my day observing baby plovers and oystercatchers. This job has given me a new understanding and love of plovers and shorebirds. It’s been a great opportunity working with CWF.

Amy Kopec

It’s a very lucky thing that birds don’t have teeth – for me at least. I am still waiting for the day that some of our more “outgoing” plovers learn how to bite, and that will be the end of wearing sandals during nest surveys. One such bird that is on the cusp of discovering a novel defense technique is the notorious Michael Jackson, usually just called MJ. I know that scientifically it is inaccurate and discouraged to assign human traits to animals. This is why some studies don’t even name their birds. Yet, anyone who has ever met MJ will tell you that for a tiny bird, he’s got a big personality. The majority of plovers will fake a broken wing to lure predators (and people) away from the nest only once they have three or four eggs laid. Not MJ. He will “broken wing” over an empty scrape and start peeping in warning fifty yards from his nest.

Holgate beach is full of characters. Earl has appointed herself “neighborhood watch” of a large section of beach, flying and running from spot to spot to yell at us for trespassing–even if we’re no longer in her territory, but at the nest of another pair. Avett and Magenta are a pair that usually attempt the opposite technique, nesting in the grass and sneaking away at the first sign of trouble. They rely on camouflage for protection, instead of distraction. Kookie and her mate incubate and parent with a single-minded focus. In the past three years she has fledged a total of

twelve chicks, a perfect score which makes her a legitimate Super Mom. And Hurley took a year, but now that he has a mate, he’s defending his nest with all his effort. Having over 50 pairs of plovers on one beach makes it a bit chaotic, but it also means that there’s plenty to see and do, and it’s always exciting.

Dakota Bell

Before joining the plover project last summer, I was not aware of how much beach nesting birds differ from songbirds or tree nesting birds. With the exception of chickens and ducks, many people’s idea of a freshly hatched chick is a helpless and sometimes featherless baby that is entirely dependent on parental care for quite some time. However, shorebirds hatch precocial chicks that only need a couple of hours before their instincts take over to get up and go. They immediately begin learning to forage and fine tuning their motor skills. It is a blessing and a curse to monitor broods of chicks that are constantly on the move and can disappear in an instant. This has been the longest and most difficult game of hide and seek I have ever been a part of. But in the case of piping plover chicks, successfully finding these tiny, long-legged cotton balls cruising down the beach is the highlight of my workday.

Despite growing up on South Jersey beaches, the amount of plastic pollution that I see at our monitoring sites will never cease to amaze me. With our primary site being a beach closed to the public for about half the year, the majority of the trash on the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR is washing up in the tides or blowing in over the water rather than being left by careless beach goers. More than anything else, you can count on seeing mylar or foil balloons. They can be found on the shoreline, in the dunes, wrapped around vegetation, in the marsh, floating on top of the water, and anywhere else imaginable. Balloon strings get tangled in clumps of seaweed or in tufts of dune grass and pose a grave threat to the delicate wildlife that call our shores home. I have collected countless numbers of balloons from the beach during the first three months of field work this year and still face a dismal amount every day. I have never been more aware of my contribution to the mass of single use plastics and have taken a stance of definitively anti-balloon.

A “much adored by staff” piping plover chick. Courtesy of Sean Pajak.

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2 Responses to “Beach Nesting Birds- an Insider’s Look from CWF’s Seasonal Monitors”

  1. Jim Merritt says:

    Good job CWF volunteers. It is fun to read your comments. Jim

  2. Frank Robey says:

    THANK YOU so much for what you guys are doing to help wild critters out!! I really enjoyed your postings!

    I hate balloons!