Piping Plovers on Bristol County State Beaches – Mid-Season Update by Jamie Bogart

research-baby-ploverThe 2013 plover season in Bristol County has arguably been the most intriguing and eventful one in the history of the initiative. Increased nesting habitat from Hurricane Sandy, first ever meetings with the Town of Fairhaven in response to increasing pair abundance and larger fenced refuges, oil spill restoration funding providing government (USDA) predator control efforts and more surveillance to ensure compliance with laws, and pairs nesting near roadways like never before at Horseneck, have made for a season that won’t be soon forgotten.

Preliminary estimates indicate approximately 23 pairs which actually nested or can be considered breeding pairs are distributed between Demarest Lloyd (7), Horseneck (10) and West Island (6). Horseneck pair numbers have finally resembled historical abundance levels, and Demarest Lloyd has a record number of pairs. Pairs nested on new sand near the campground at Horseneck, close to the secondary parking lot of Demarest Lloyd, and on a “tabletop” blowout in the dunes on town property at West Island, each location containing a habitat created by the recent hurricane.

The lead story has become three plover nests on blocks of sand where old facilities used to be, including a re-nest near the historical concessions building after all hatchlings initially perished. Plover nesting there ensured that demolition of the historical structure won’t occur until fall, and that we must protect the pair from disturbance for the re-nest due to the relocated concession area set to open nearby. Nesting on these relatively secluded areas on a beach with such high recreation activity was destined to happen. Protecting the nests is relatively simple, but the young face a long and dangerous walk to the intertidal zone, and we must help ensure that the chicks don’t suffer vehicle induced mortality first and foremost, on a beach where any closures are no simple endeavor. The movements of the concession stand hatchlings downslope along the dune line (toward the main parking lot!) conjured images of a pristine, complex dune system with intertidal connection to the vast Westport River estuary that probably existed before the park and lots were built over wetlands. How will the re-nest fare when the concession stand actually opens for service in July?

We’re happy to report the pair on the other island of sand east to the main headquarters at Horseneck took advantage of its closer proximity to natural habitat, and made the initial trip across the vehicular access road to the safety of protected dunes and intertidal food sources. Here they share space with as much as 20 pairs of Least Terns and their young which are running about at this time and being fed silversides by their parents. For Horseneck, this is a large number of terns, and includes a few pairs actually on the main beach that are using artificial cover (wooden pallets) that we have placed in their refuge. For those unaware (or uninterested?) in the plovers, the terns are providing quite a show.

research-baby-ploversOn the downside, Horseneck plover hatchlings continue to vanish at the beach, with the Great Horned Owl (reported to be the leading cause last year) become increasingly suspect, and some hatchlings found dead appearing to suffer from being “landlocked” near roadways, or perhaps hindered by the excessive cobble in the east refuge, and more vulnerable to predators there.

On West Island, an initial round of abandoned nests (5) was due to a combination of visitation of predator exclosures by any of a number of possible predators, avian and mammalian, and probably some human presence on a beach where buffer zones are inevitably small. Two nests were also predated, one by crow (town beach) and one by raccoon (DCR/state beach), the pair on state property not recently seen. Although pairs (3) on or near the far DCR portion of the island may have unfortunately left the site, the three on the town property are well on their way to producing fledges, without use of metal exclosures. Predator exclosures clearly attracted attention causing abandonments early on. While one can therefore point to events unrelated to amount of roped area as resulting in lower plover production West Island this season, early pair departures occurring during a year of a slight reduction in protected areas can’t be ignored. Regardless of the outcome, we are happy to have started a collaborative effort with the Town of Fairhaven, which will only improve management efforts going forward.

Thankfully we have Demarest Lloyd, where five of seven pairs have produced young, hatchling mortality is low, and a large least tern colony is going strong at this time on the large sand spit. Other than an early predated nest, and one instance of a crow that actually entered a predator exclosure, this is our most successful site of the season and this year has a record number of nesting pairs.

On Gooseberry, only a least tern nest was found thus far in year when the habitat is of highest quality for shorebirds. Chances are the one to two pairs that nested there found space on nearby Horseneck.

We’re hopeful for a strong finish to the 2013 shorebird season, and continued great efforts by interns Sandra Araujo and Katherine Ferrari!