New York City beaches are open for swimming this weekend, which means everyone's eager to enjoy the ocean surf once again. And at some of the city's most popular beaches, humans need to realize they aren't the only ones there: It's piping plover nesting season, and little chicks are scurrying from their nests to the water and back again.

Piping plovers are an endangered shorebird that fly from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean to New York for nesting season. They have nests along Rockaway Beach, Jacob Riis Beach, and Fort Tilden. Both the NYC Parks Department and National Parks Service help monitor the plover population; the NPS even canceled all summer concerts at Sandy Hook/Gateway National Park last year when plover nests were found.

Video courtesy of Chris Allieri

However, the pandemic has delayed some of their efforts. Patricia Rafferty, chief of resource stewardship at Gateway National Park, explained that each spring, they "install symbolic fencing along the upper beach in areas of the park in which we have had or have the potential to have nesting piping plovers."

This usually happens by April 1st, but Rafferty said, "Due to COVID-19 stay at home orders and need to analyze how we do things and put in place procedures to keep field staff safe, we were a bit later getting all of the fencing in place." The "symbolic" fencing is installed on "Fort Tilden, West (between the Silver Gull and Breezy Point Coop), and all of our ocean an bayside beaches east of the Breezy Point Coop," she added.

Piping plovers, who also nest in the Great Lakes and between North Carolina and Newfoundland, are attracted to flat beach areas by the shoreline and near dunes, with little vegetation, so they can feast on marine worms, insect larvae, beetles, and mollusks. The New York Times reports, "But over the past century, coastal development and recreational use of shorelines have vastly reduced the amount of waterfront property available to the sand-colored shorebirds."

"Shoreline fencing is currently in place from B38 to B57 to provide plovers with a space to nest and raise their chicks undisturbed," Charisse Hill, a spokesperson for the NYC Parks Department, said. The department has managed the Rockaway Beach Endangered Species Nesting Area since 1996. "We’ve also created chalk tips along the boardwalk, in lieu of our annual Plover Day Festival, to share coexistence tips with visitors and raise awareness of this endangered shorebird species."

Still, conservationist and photographer Chris Allieri is being worried about plovers and other birds along the beaches. A Brooklyn resident, Allieri started biking to Jamaica Bay and the Rockaway Peninsula beaches during the pandemic, observing all the bird life. "From a few feet away from the busy Riis Park Beach Bazaar to Breezy Point Tip, I have seen hundreds of threatened and endangered shorebirds on the beach. And most of them are nesting or about to nest," he said. "The amount of areas which are ‘protected’ are tiny when compared to how much space we humans have to enjoy the beach."

The National Parks Service has biologists monitoring the nesting shorebirds on a daily basis, and Rafferty said this holiday weekend, "all of our Natural Resource biologists will be working in our Jamaica Bay and Sandy Hook units to monitor our nesting shorebirds and to conduct outreach and education with park visitors to comply with park rules that are in place to protect the plovers and other nesting shorebirds." The city's Park Department's Wildlife Unit will be working with the Parks Enforcement Patrol this weekend, to ensure plover nests remain undisturbed.

Allieri understands the agencies' efforts, but pointed out, "The thing is, even if there are protected areas, the nesting parents didn’t get the memo with the map. They are going to go where they want to go, and sometimes it is in areas with heavy foot traffic." He continued, "Also, because of distancing and other restrictions, we have less staff and volunteers out to help with enforcement. As such, it relies on New Yorkers to come out and do the right thing."

Video courtesy of Chris Allieri

Which is to get out of the way and follow the rules. Both the NPS and NYC Parks Department prohibits dogs on the beaches because they frighten the birds. Rafferty said, "The birds perceive dogs as predators to themselves and their chicks. If the adult birds are disturbed early on, while attempting to nest, they may abandon an area completely." Kite flying is also not allowed within 200 meters of nesting areas (the kites look like birds of prey to the plovers, who weigh 1.7-2.2 ounces).

Allieri hopes for more radical action, "This may make me very unpopular, but I am going to say it: I think that a portion from Riis to Breezy Point Tip should be shut entirely. I am not saying shut all the beaches entirely, though in many instances that falls fully within the oversight of the Endangered Species Act. But from Fort Tilden to Breezy Point Tip, there is one tiny beach—from shoreline to dunes— that is technically closed. And people still walk through it."