If there’s a beach-bound equivalent of canaries in coal mines, it could be the piping plover. Just two years ago, the tiny Atlantic Coast shore birds’ population was down to only 115 birds. Such an historic low, the state of New Jersey put them on its endangered species list. The federal government’s placed them under what’s called “intensive conservation”. The Conserve Wildlife Beach Nesting Bird Project Manager — arguable the reigning expert — is Todd Pover. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams recently asked him what their depleted population is telling us.
Williams: Thanks for being with us. There are only some 115 piping plovers in the state. What is their depleted population telling us?
Pover: Well they’re an endangered species and our job here is to recover them. At this point they’re low but they’re rising right at the moment. We hit the low of 92 pairs two years ago. Since then we sort of doubled down on our efforts and we’ve seen some gains in the last two year.
Williams: How are you working to increase their population?
Pover: Well, you know, we work just as hard in the years the birds do well as when they do bad so that can be frustrating at times. Some of the things we did is we just started, we met after we hit our low and we made sure that we were minimizing impacts to the birds. A lot of the birds are in communities or in sites where we work with the managers from the towns. We made sure their activities didn’t impact the birds, we’ve made sure we had people out on the beach talking to and working with the public so they don’t impact the birds and then we were just looking at all the tools that we’ve had available to address to the birds.
Williams: When you talk about impact, so you’re talking about construction and taking over habitat. Are you talking about traffic? What are the impacts?
Pover: Well there is a variety of factors. Just the general public, their activities on the beach can impact birds. They’re very highly sensitive to human disturbance. So, things like playing or chasing the birds or just being active in the areas where the birds are trying to nest. So, when the public knows and we can teach them to respect the fenced areas where we protect the birds, not bringing dogs on the beach where the birds are, things like that can help the birds. But also all the beaches in New Jersey are very busy. We have lifeguards, we have trash collection, a lot of activities from the municipalities themselves. We work really close with the towns to make sure all those activities aren’t impacting the birds. They’re vulnerable to being run over by vehicles for instance — the chicks are when they’re young before they can fly. So, it’s not high tech. It’s pretty simple but there’s so many impacts that it takes a full effort.
Williams: The piping plovers are currently nesting. Where can we spot them?
Pover: Well yeah this is a really great time to see them actually. In addition to all breeders, we also have a lot of migrants coming down that already finished nesting in New England, New York and even Canada. We saw some of those birds last week. But the best places in the state — Sandy Hook in the north part of the coast has 50 pairs of piping plovers. Just the other day I myself saw 40 from one spot and then in the general — the central part of New Jersey, the state owned North Brigantine Natural Area is a really great place to see birds. Not as many, but a lot of migrants in particular at that site. And then if you’re in the southern part of the state, Stone Harbor Point in Cape May County is a really great place to see plovers as well as we have other endangered beach nesting birds least terns, black skimmers and American oyster catchers so that’s a really great place to see all those species.
Williams: Piping plovers tend to return to the very same nesting place year in and year out. Is that unique to them and does it make conservation efforts slightly easier?
Pover: Well a lot of wildlife is, we call that site fidelity, and a lot of wildlife exhibits that, plovers in particular. It actually does help us in some ways. Just to give you one example, we’ve had sites where the birds have come back for two and three decades in a row, sometimes the same exact portion of the beach. So, we have limited resources, we can focus our attention again, work with the site manager to make sure we have everything in that particular spot, intensively managed and protected. You know we put up the fence. The piping plovers return in March and April and in those places we know where they are going to come back, we can put out the fence before they even get back and that’s going to guarantee a better chance that they’re going to do well. So as soon as they’re going to get back, we make sure that area is protected.
Williams: Earlier you referred to the danger of traffic to chicks being run over. What are other challenges of helping newly hatched chick survive?
Pover: Well, the nests, the eggs themselves are a little bit easier to protect. New Jersey in particular has done very well in protecting them. They’re on the upper beach, we’ve fenced that area off, we can put cages around the plover nest to protect them from predators. Once they hatch, the chicks need to get to the water’s edge to feed. They feed themselves — the parents don’t feed them — and as you know in New Jersey that’s where all the action is on the beach with people too. People want to cool off, they want to play in the water. So, we try, we have special signage we put up for the areas. We do close some areas, limited areas to foraging. We make sure again that the towns’ trash pick ups and other vehicles aren’t driving through those areas when chicks are vulnerable and we have just people in place there to try and protect and talk to the public.
Williams: Todd, you follow the piping plovers to the Bahamas where they winter. What are you learning from that?
Pover: Well that’s really been an exciting part of my job. For the first 20 or so years of my job all I did is focus on New Jersey here and in fact, that kind of mirrored the recovery program here in the U.S. This is the 30th year that the piping plovers have been federally listed and for probably the first two decades or so, most of the emphasis was on breeding and for good reason and we’ve more than tripled the population range wide. But think about about it this way — the birds come here to breed and then they’re a migratory species so they spend at least half or more of their life somewhere else, either on the migration or the winning grounds. So, in the Bahamas we’re working really hard to protect them there too. Like I said, it’s great that we’re focusing on breeding, but for their long-term survival they need to be healthy and protected year round.
Williams: Speaking of long-term survival, you’re pairing students in New Jersey with students in the Bahamas to study them. What do you hope to achieve through that?
Pover: Well, you know education is one of the keys here. A lot of the habits and the reasons why we protect the birds is the public doesn’t understand. So, hope to start early and teach them. We also want young conservationists and we think this is a great way to do it. We call piping plover our Shorebird Sister School Network and we’re linking the schools here and in the Bahamas over the migration idea and we teach them everything from science to art. It’s really been an exciting, great program I think.
Williams: What role does public knowledge of the piping plover play in conservation?
Pover: Oh really it’s critical. It’s really at the base of everything we do. You know there’s some species that nest in far away places that are not near the public. This isn’t the case with the piping plover. They’re right out there on the beach, right there where the people are. So, the only way we’re really going to achieve recovery is through education. Again, I think I said it before, the public needs to know small things they do, like respecting the fence and the birds if they see them, not push them and also keep their dogs off the beach for instance is great. And then just the more people who are positive about it, it grows. We have people now at the sites that come back just to see the birds and other people there, we see them teaching them as well.
Williams: All right, Todd Pover thank you for being with us.
Pover: Thank you.