Written by Rich Eldred/Wicked Local Cape Cod
Twenty-five years after Piping Plovers were listed as a threatened species under the endangered species act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1986 the numbers are up, by 234 percent on the Atlantic coast of North America and by 326 percent in Massachusetts through 2009.
An adult Piping Plover sits with a chick alongside some eelgrass. Photo courtesy of Jim Fenton and The Goldenrod Foundation
“It’s been 25 years and the numbers have increased quite a bit so it is working,” reflected Ellen Jedrey, assistant director of Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program. “But it’s not just Mass Audubon. It’s the Endangered Species Act, people working together from towns, the state, Federal government, private people and education. There’s been a lot of education along the way.”
Scott Hecker, now executive director of The Goldenrod Foundation, has monitored Piping Plovers since 1987.
“I think the Endangered Species Act and listing has helped them tremendously,” he opined. “But the demand to use beaches is constant and pressure is increasing. The recovery so far is due to a very intense management level, an unheard of level of protection and human effort to save this bird – and how long will that be sustained?”
Plover numbers have hit plateau in recent years, just short of the goal line. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to see 2,000 pair along the Atlantic Coast for five consecutive years. The numbers have jumped from 790 in 1986 to a peak of 1,890 in 2007, but have since dipped slightly. The problem is nest productivity, which has been in decline since 1992. It hit a 25-year Massachusetts low of 0.91 chicks per nest in 2009, the most recent year with final data. Fish and Wildlife’s long-term goal is 1.5 chicks per nest for five years; a number reached only once coast-wide (1994) since 1986.
Massachusetts has done better with a peak productivity of 2.03 birds per nest in 1992 – just after off-road vehicle restrictions went into effect. But the last year with productivity above 1.5 was 1,999.
The problem in recent years hasn’t been people driving over nests and chicks, but late spring storms washing away nests and predation from an assortment of animals.
“Crows were the number one predator for the third year in a row,” Jedrey noted. “Crows and coyotes it varies year to year. It was red fox for a while and skunk. Distemper went through and knocked the skunk numbers down. You can never say this is the number one predator.”
“Predators have been part of the equation since plovers existed,” Hecker said. “But predation has increased a little bit because some of the predators have adapted so well to human development. Grows and gulls have increased with human trash. In suburbia there are more opportunities for fox and coyotes to find food.”
And there are many more eggs to find. In 1985 there were 18 pair of plovers in Cape Cod National Seashore.
“At the Seashore we have 46 nests as of Monday and 76 pairs,” noted Shelly Hack, Chief of Natural Resources, “That’s about the same as last year. We’ve lost a few nests to over-wash a couple of weeks ago. And we’ve lost some to crow predation already. Over the last 10 to 20 years there’s been a huge increase in the number of plovers nesting here. It’s been a successful program that’s now at a plateau.”
Plovers nest in open sand, often in areas where vegetation and nests are scraped away by storms.
“It’s been very rainy with poor weather and wet springs are not very good for ground nesting birds,” Jedrey conceded.
“The first egg this year was April 25. Last year it was April 22,” Hack said. “The ones that lose their nest will re-nest, sometimes several times. We have fledglings until August and early September.”
That relentless nesting keeps the beach buggies off the beaches. Otherwise it’d be about a 28-day cycle from hatching to fledging and the restrictions would be gone well before July 4. Currently Jeremy Point in Wellfleet is closed on the west side and there are closures on Great Island in Wellfleet and at Head of the Meadow in Truro.
And more birds mean more closures. But productivity gains have stalled.
“Productivity has been decreasing overall on the Atlantic Coast,” Jedrey said. “But last year we had a really good year (1.29 fledglings per pair). They year before was a terrible year (0.99).”
This year the water bird program is using 26 volunteers to monitor about 225 pairs, 170 on Cape Cod, in southern Massachusetts. Their first chicks hatched Tuesday at Corn Hill in Truro.
The oil spill in the gulf (plovers winter there), slowly rising sea level (leading to more over-washed beaches) and human disturbance still hinder the recovery.
“The pressure is constant to soften the restrictions,” Hecker noted.
But success is possible. The Seashore held a public meeting yesterday [May 26] as step one in writing an environmental assessment and developing a new shorebird management plan.
“It’s a scoping meeting, at the beginning, it’s comprehensive, it’ll cover Least Terns, Roseate Terns, plovers, oystercatchers, migratory birds,’ Hack promised.
Year Atlantic Coast Massachusetts
1986 790 139
1987 790 126
1988 886 134
1989 957 137
1990 982 140
1991 1003 160
1992 1013 213
1993 1100 289
1994 1162 352
1995 1350 441
1996 1364 454
1997 1386 483
1998 1379 495
1999 1392 501
2000 1437 496
2001 1530 495
2002 1690 538
2003 1676 511
2004 1658 488
2005 1624 467
2006 1779 482
2007 1890 55
2008 1849 566
2009 1849 593