July is nearly through, and so is the piping plover’s nesting season. It’s make-or-break time for these small, endangered shorebirds.
There are roughly 8,000 piping plovers in the entire world. To put that in context, birders often get really excited to see a rare bird like a snowy owl. But there are about 28,000 snowy owls in the world, slightly over three times the number of piping plovers.
Since piping plovers make their nests along the water and out in the open, their chicks are very vulnerable to being gobbled up by predators. And a major reason for their decline in numbers is human development along the beaches, lakes, and rivers where piping plovers lay their eggs.
Science Friday radio producer Shoshannah Buxbaum went out to Fort Tilden in Queens to report on a volunteer-run conservation effort along the New York City coastline.
This story originally appeared on Science Friday and was republished with permission. A transcript of the Queens story is below. To hear more details about piping plover conservation in the Great Lakes, check out the full segment.
Sophie Bushwick: This is Science Friday, I'm Sophie Bushwick. And now it’s time to check in on the State of Science.
**State of Science Sound Effect**
Local science stories of national significance. July is nearly through, and so is the piping plover’s nesting season. It's make or break time for these small, endangered shorebirds. And I heard that SciFri producer Shoshannah Buxbaum is a piping plover super fan.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Hi Sophie! Yes, I mean, I’ve been obsessed with them ever since I first learned about them six years ago.
Sophie Bushwick: I know that it’s pretty rare to see a piping plover flit across the beach. But just how many of them are left?
Shoshannah Buxbaum: So, there are roughly 8,000 piping plovers in the entire world! To put that in context, birders often get really excited to see a rare bird like a snowy owl. But, there are about 28,000 snowy owls in the world — which is still not enough and not a lot. But, that's over three times the number of piping plovers.
Sophie Bushwick: Why are there so few piping plovers? How did they become an endangered species?
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Piping plovers like to nest along the water out in the open, which makes their babies very vulnerable to say a predator gobbling them up. But, a really big factor here is well, us. We’re taking up prime nesting real estate on the beach. Good news is, there are people out there who are trying to protect the plovers.
Sophie Bushwick: And you actually got to go see some plovers up close?
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Yup! Hands down highlight of my year! Last week I went to visit a protected area out on Fort Tilden, a New York City beach out on the Rockaways, some of the toughest terrain for these tiny birds. And I talked with the volunteers dedicated to keeping them safe.
Shoshannah Buxbaum : We're getting close. This will be my first, my first piping plover IRL ever.
Chris Allieri: Oh my gosh. You are in for a treat.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: I'm so excited. I've seen so many photos of them.
Chris Allieri: I get excited every single time I see them. Yeah, there's the adult and there's the chick right there that chick's getting pretty big. That's a really nice-size chick.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Aww. Oh my God. It's so little. They just like scamper. It looks like they're almost floating above the sand. Yeah, they're going so fast.
Chris Allieri: Watch the adult. It, it, it moves one of its feet in the front to get things to come up in the sand. And if you watch the little chick as well, it's watching its parent to do the same thing. And one of the things too is that they, they respond to certain calls, but just like human children, they don't always listen to their parents.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: If you've never seen one, piping plovers look sort of like a cotton ball plopped on top of two sticks, with a little black ring around their necks. They're tiny and really easy to miss if you aren't looking for them. Luckily I had an experienced guide.
Chris Allieri: I'm Chris Allieri. I'm the founder of NYC Plover Project. I grew up on the beaches of south Jersey on the southern tip of Long Beach Island in Holgate, New Jersey, which happens to be now the most important place for plovers in New Jersey. But I'd never seen them up close. And fast forward to the beginning of the pandemic. I was out here in March of 2020, and I saw a piping plover run by me and then another, and then another. I saw like six or seven and they were at close range. And then I saw dogs off leash. I saw kids up in the dunes. I saw no signage and it was just like, what is going on? I mean, I'm like, shaking my fist and I'm like, shaking in excitement and also anger.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: So, Chris decided to channel that anger into action. And he founded the NYC Plover Project. By the next spring he partnered with the National Park Service to set up closures all along the Rockaway Peninsula. They’re staffed by a bevy of dedicated volunteers. And now, in its second year, the nonprofit has roughly 75 volunteers. And they’ve clocked about 2,000 hours so far this season.
Chris Allieri: This is our volunteer, Leann.
Leann Beard: Hi. Nice to meet you.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Hey, Leann.
Chris Allieri: She's staffing at our closure right now. What's the story right now?
Leann Beard: There was somebody in the, uh, roped-up area. We had one runner kind of like blow through. And I was like, Hey, this is a, there's an endangered bird over here. They were like outside of the roped-off area for a while. *laughter*
Chris Allieri: This is what happens when we do close a beach. The chicks and the birds, like, will immediately exit the closure, ‘cause it's, like, not sufficient. They're like, no, no, no. We meant the whole beach!
Shoshannah Buxbaum: The volunteers have a deceptively hard job. They’re the enforcers. And if someone goes through the closed-off area, tries to bring in their dog, which is a no-no, they have to tell them politely to walk around to another path. Most people are respectful — but, this is New York after all. And right now it’s the very end of the breeding season. And Chris — he’s not taking any chances.
Chris Allieri: And it's like at this point in the season, it's, uh, we're not at a high-tolerance mode. *laughter* Um, you know, you're gonna get a talk, you know, you're gonna get a chat.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: In the roughly 45 minutes I was standing by the closure at Fort Tilden beach, Chris called the park police twice, one person who walked through the closure area and then a group with a dog who had already been asked to leave but tried to enter again.
Chris Allieri: And I mean, some people might think that that's heavy-handed, but here, listen, we had a chick stepped on, on this beach right here two days ago. So we cannot be too careful.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: And the chick was sent to a rehab facility in Delaware... but, unfortunately, the chick didn't make it. And these plover chicks are up against a lot. Their list of predators is, well, long.
Chris Allieri: We're seeing ghost crabs, raccoons, feral cats, dogs, we had a drone incident where birds were attacking the drone and then everybody's chicks went everywhere. When things like a drone or fireworks show up, all bets are off, right? Like it just creates a terror event.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: So why then do the plovers keep coming back every year to such a precarious place to nest?
Chris Allieri: Well, the sad truth is that from Delaware up to Maine. There's very few beaches without people. So with that, um, they are creatures of habit. And so they are going to keep coming back to these beaches for food sources.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: The piping plovers migrate up from Florida and South Carolina, some are far as the Caribbean. They arrive in March. But, they don't start nesting until April or May. This year, there are 49 breeding pairs nesting on New York City beaches. And just two fledglings, that is chicks that have learned to fly. And hopefully the baby I saw on Fort Tilden beach will be fledgling number three. But piping plovers born on beaches surrounded by people, like these city birds, tend to be smaller, have lower survival rates, and take longer to be mature enough to fly.
Chris Allieri: It's hard not to get discouraged. It's hard not to get sentimental. But, like, in this work, there is no time for that. Right? And the plovers don't have time for that. Right? So, like the next day I've seen this happen multiple times, they've lost one, two, three, four of their chicks or their nest was destroyed. And then the next day they're at it again, copulating and trying it again.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: And Chris takes his cues from the plovers — just keep going. Keep advocating for more and better closures, keep educating the public.
Chris Allieri: These are large, complicated beaches. But, it's not impossible. We have seen the success of endangered species, like the bald eagle. Right? We can see bald eagles now in New York City.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: And the thing that really keeps Chris going? Teaching the next generation.
Chris Allieri: And when I can show young people, like that's a parent, that's a chick like really close by. I mean, that's like, such a, a gift to be able to do that. I feel like I'm passing along something that someone was kind enough to pass to me.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: For Science Friday, I'm Shoshannah Buxbaum.
Correction: The photo in this story has been replaced. A previous version had an image of the wrong bird.