Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Chesapeake Now: Little Wings, Big Story. An Endangered Species on the Rebound

Oct 06, 2015 11:57AM ● By Cate Reynolds
Story and Photos by Mark Hendricks

Once an endangered species, the Piping Plovers of Assateague Island find sanctuary and are on the rebound

I’m staring through the view finder of my camera, which when attached to a 400mm lens makes an excellent makeshift spotting scope, scanning the beach for the nest of a piping plover (Charadrius melodus). The nest is difficult to find, the tiny eggs look more like spotted pebbles and are camouflaged perfectly in the sand. I am in the northern portion of the seashore, an area that plovers have used in seasons past, and this year is no different. 

“This is going to be a good day,” I say to Kelly Taylor, my guide and the park’s science communicator, as the avian team (aka “plover crew”) begins to unload their equipment. I am now going to eyewitness conservation in action, amongst the dunes of Maryland’s famed barrier island.

The Island & the Plovers

Assateague Island is an ecological wonderland where visitors come from all over the world to experience the park’s iconic wild horses and spend the day along its many miles of pristine beach. But beyond the recreational opportunities that abound here, it also serves as critical nesting habitat for some of the region’s sensitive avian species, the most notable being the piping plover. The plover is a small—no bigger than 18 centimeters—sand colored shorebird that inhabits Assateague Island from March through September. While most visitors may never have caught a glimpse of one, you have probably unknowingly heard its loquacious peep-lo, peep-lo during a day strolling through the dunes and beach that are required by this bird to successfully procreate.
Yet the story of the plover is one of redemption: a drama where certain extinction caused by human encroachment was avoided because of foresight and human intervention. It was not in the too distant past when the survival of the plover looked grim; population numbers were at record lows. Yet, due to sound scientific-based management, things are looking up for this most adorable looking bird that lives part of its year here in The Free State.

The species experienced its first brush with extinction in the early 20th century due to uncontrolled hunting because, unfortunately for the plovers, their feathers made for popular adornment on not-so-stylish women’s hats. Thanks in part to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, this inauspicious fashion statement trends no longer but the second, continuing long-term threat facing the plover does—loss of natural habitat along the Atlantic coast. In the years following World War II, much of the plovers’ nesting grounds were lost due to development that coincided with resort communities. What little habitat remained was compromised in part by overly managed, highly groomed beaches for recreational use, which resulted in significant decline to population levels. This, in turn, led the federal government to list the Atlantic Coast population of piping plovers as threatened under provisions set forth by the United States Endangered Species Act in 1986 (while their counterparts in the Great Lakes region were listed as endangered). 

Since then, the Atlantic Coast population of piping plovers has experienced a fairly steady increase in population abundance. In 2010 there were a total of 1,782 breeding pairs, with a breeding range stretching from Newfoundland, Canada, down to North Carolina. To put that in perspective, there were only 790 breeding pairs when they were listed in 1986. To maintain a stable population there would need to be at least 2,000 breeding pairs for five consecutive years. Without protected land free from development the plover cannot maintain a viable population, hence the importance of Assateague Island to their overall recovery. “Most beaches along the Atlantic Coast have been developed into resort communities where over-wash zones and natural beaches no longer exist,” says Ashlie Kozlowski, outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Assateague Island Alliance. “Assateague Island is the only place piping plovers nest in Maryland.”

To maintain a stable population, however, the plovers need more than just undeveloped beach; they need higher rates of chick survival. Predation on their eggs is a major factor limiting population growth. 

This is where the “plover crew” steps in. 

To the Rescue

To mitigate egg loss from predation, the park service employs specially trained employees who engineer predator “exclosures” around plover nests as they are discovered. These “exclosures” are specially designed fenced enclosures that allow the plover to nest undisturbed, while keeping predators, such as red fox and raccoon, out. The team rolls out a wire fence around the nest and hammer large wooden stakes into the sand to stabilize it vertically. The openings in the fence are appropriately plover sized, allowing the bird to come and go as it pleases. A mesh covering is then attached to the top to prohibit aerial egg snatchers, such as crows and gulls, from entering. The team carefully sweeps away all footprints in and around the flat of the area. This all happens in less than twenty minutes. It is conservation efficiency at its finest. 

On occasion the park service is mandated to close portions of beach to protect the nesting area of the plovers, usually in the heavily trafficked OSV (over sand vehicle) zone, during the height of tourist season. Because piping plovers are a sensitive species, when they experience too much disturbance it is not uncommon for them to abandon their nest, leaving their eggs to become an easy meal. In other states along the Atlantic Coast this has been quite the controversial measure and has been blamed for everything from loss of economic revenue to the canceling of Fourth of July parades, making the piping plover out to be public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of some.

However the mission of the park service is not solely based on conservation, it is outdoor recreation as well. “A major challenge for the National Park Service is to protect the piping plover and other natural resources, while providing high-quality recreational opportunities for the seashore’s many summer visitors,” says Bill Hulslander, the park’s Chief of Resources Management.

For Assateague Island National Seashore, though, they have never experienced a true backlash to the beach closings. This is in part due to maintaining an open dialogue with the park’s different user groups that may be affected by the closings. Keeping people informed of the closings and promoting other recreational opportunities at Assateague Island helps preserve the park’s mission of recreation and conservation.

“The National Park Service expects that actions to safeguard sensitive species like the piping plover may affect some aspects of public use but, with a little patience and flexibility, visitors will always have a rewarding experience with all that Assateague Island has to offer,” Hulslander says.

Nature Does Call

Here on the island one can easily get lost in the sights and sounds of wildness. Earlier in the morning two majestic bald eagles flew overhead while a sika stag watched me from the edge of a maritime forest. Even if I did not find a plover on this particular morning the day was already made better—just being on Assateague is worth the trip.

Finding and building exclosures for a tiny, sand colored, plover amongst the beaches of Assateague Island is not a simple task, but it is important work. I am reminded that Assateague is a sanctuary for other species as well, including myself, and is our link to Maryland’s wild heritage.

“The natural undeveloped seashore habitats along Assateague Island are also important for least terns, American oystercatchers, and other rare bird species,” Hulslander says.

Preserving undeveloped seashore is why the peep-lo of the piping plover will still be heard along the beach of Assateague Island for years to come.

How can you help the plover’s habitat?

1. Obey Beach Closure signs- Piping plovers are a sensitive species and need plenty of space. Stay by the water’s edge when strolling along the beach when near a known nesting area.

2. Do not walk your dog around Plover nesting sites. Even on a leash dogs have been known to frighten and kill plovers, especially chicks. Also keep your cat indoors as feral cats have been known to prey on plovers.

3. Throw away your trash. Trash left on the beach will attract more predators to where the plover nests.