Tiny Bird, Huge Impact

    Have you ever stopped to glance at the tiny birds darting along the shore while you lay out on the sand?  If your favorite beach happens to be on the east coast, you may be looking at a piping plover.  Standing at just over a few inches in height, these little birds have been frequently overlooked by humans, causing a steady and severe drop in population.  Efforts by conservationists and bird enthusiasts are surely helping the recovery, but a thriving population like once before will require cooperation from everyone.  Species in recent history have slipped into extinction on multiple occasions; why let it happen again?

    Piping plovers are an endangered species.  Multiple states on the east coast including New Jersey listed the birds as endangered thirty years ago.  According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the birds are considered “critically imperiled because of their extreme rarity.”  The cause? Overall disturbance of habitat.  Like many endangered species today, interruption of habitats due to human interference seems to be the real detriment.  Piping plovers are a perfect example of this.  The birds nest on the beach between the high-tide line and dunes, avoiding areas with thick vegetation.  The lack of vegetation around the nest opens the door for a whole world of problems.  Predators are easily able to locate the nests on the bare, sandy beaches, while the birds are not able to protect them very well.  While beach season is underway the birds lose their eggs, or worst case entire nests, to being stepped on, driven over, or even disturbed by dogs and other beach-going pets.  With the number of people that head to the beach every spring and summer, it is nearly impossible to avoid disturbance of the so openly placed Piping Plover nests.  Imagine attempting to live with all of this disturbance around our own lives; it would be nearly impossible. 

    It is super important to keep these birds in mind when on the beaches.  Careless beach activity can be devastating to not only a few species, but the beach ecosystems as a whole.  Tons of other sea and shore birds are faced with the same problem as the plovers, as many of the birds share similar nesting habitat.  For instance, black skimmers, american oystercatchers and least terns all nest similarly in the sand.  Sadly, these four species all find themselves on the endangered species list together. 

    For this reason, each year the state of New Jersey closes off sections of beaches all along the coast.  In one the state’s most crucial habitats, Holgate, beaches are closed off entirely to the public the majority of the summer, all for the maintenance of piping plover nesting.  At the majority of beaches up and down the coast it is common to find large, roped off areas along the sand preventing people from walking through nesting habitat. Pretty crazy huh?  It is clear NOT to mess around with endangered species, so why push it?  In only a week at the shore last summer, I witnessed multiple people on many different occasions walking through these roped-off nesting areas.  Upon asking to exit the roped off section, some complied while others more or less told me to find something better to do.  I guess people are just people: they break rules.  Some will always choose to enter these closed areas, no matter how tough the discouragement tactics are.  It’s only a matter of time until tougher punishments are enforced.    

    Luckily for the birds, current conservation efforts are higher than ever and new discoveries are prompting more and more hope for the future of piping plovers.  The 2016 international census showed promising numbers for the Atlantic coast piping plovers, as the Bahamas are now considered the most important wintering location for the population.  Winter numbers are already looking better than they have in recent years and counts are still being conducted!  This is great news for the species and even better news for conservationists, as we now know where many more of the birds spend their winter.  Soon enough I myself will be embarking on a summer long journey throughout the eastern shore of New Jersey, working with different conservation organizations to help the species.  We will be conducting banding and tracking of the nesting pairs and their chicks throughout the state as well as recording all data necessary to help get piping plovers back on the map!  I am so honored to have been granted this opportunity, and surely cannot wait to get going!  It will be a long, fun and exciting summer, so be sure to stay tuned!