BERLIN – Not many people ever see the piping plovers on Assateague Island, but with numbers increasing, visitors may get a glimpse of the threatened shore bird in the future.
Maryland’s piping plover population on Assateague Island has nearly quadrupled since the birds were first protected in 1986, from 17 breeding pairs to 64 in 2006.
North America is home to several populations of the small, sand and white colored birds that feed at the water’s edge, and all have increased, though the Great Lakes population remains on the endangered list, while the other populations are still considered threatened.
“They’re all imperiled. They’re all under intensive management. They’re all doing a little better than years ago,” said Anne Hecht of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “At least in the last five years or so, the Atlantic coast population has been fairly steadily increasing.”
Management efforts on Assateague Island include posting nesting areas as off limits to people, and requiring dogs to be on leashes.
“Atlantic coast piping plovers are one of the most intensively protected species and that’s because we’re recovering them in the context of a heavily impacted habitat,” Hecht said.
Beaches and coasts are popular, she said, and see a lot of visitors and development.
Part of the difficulty for plover conservationists is the way the plovers reproduce. The small birds brood their eggs on the beach, and chicks are mobile from the beginning of their lives.
“The birds put their nest right on the sand in what we call scrapes,” said Hecht. “Piping plover chicks feed themselves. The adults brood them. They escort the chicks to the feeding area and watch out for predators.”
This behavior puts the plovers in harm’s way from beach-loving people and the wildlife people attract.
“Predation in the coastal zone has been heavily exacerbated by human activity,” said Hecht.
Crows, skunks, raccoons, foxes and gulls are all drawn to human garbage, whether at a beach house in some states or simply at campsites or on the beach itself.
This brings predators into the same environment as the plovers, predators that might otherwise not have ventured into the habitat.
One of the methods used to protect nests from predators is a wire cage that allows the birds to pass through. Sometimes, the predators have to simply be removed.
In Maryland, the piping plover’s range is restricted to Assateague Island. Piping plovers are particularly attracted to barrier islands, Hecht said, and have nowhere else to go on Maryland’s coast.
“Places like Ocean City just aren’t habitable anymore,” Hecht said.
Piping plovers favor barrier islands, especially areas that experience overwashing by the sea. The birds hunt through the sand for larvae, mollusks, insects and other invertebrates at the water’s edge.
Although human activity may be restricted and some Assateague Island visitors might consider themselves inconvenienced, the intensive effort has been worth it.
“We have seen results,” said Hecht. “These increases have been earned the hard way.”
The piping plover will need help into the future, however, despite the increases.
“There’s nothing we’re doing that you do once and walk away,” said Hecht.
Human pressure on the plovers’ habitat will continue, as trends show more and more people moving to the coast up and down the Atlantic shore.
The recovery goal for the entire species is 2,000 breeding pairs, with over 1,700 pairs now counted in 2006.
The southern recovery unit, which comprises Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina, has 321 breeding pairs total, well shy of the 400 breeding pair goal.
Southern birds produce an average of one chick per pair per year, compared to some northern areas that see two chicks per pair per year. Hecht said the southern piping plovers are not doing as well as their northern cousins, but the increases continue, with 21 more breeding pairs in the last year.
“We are very hopeful,” Hecht said, but added, “We are never going to completely walk away from this species.”