Plovers weather storm in 2012

The Lloyd Center protected a record 20 pairs of Piping Plovers on the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) beaches in Bristol County during this year’s shorebird management season, for which storms played a significant role.

A major factor causing Piping Plover pair increases has been natural beach replenishment from storms, the most significant being tropical storm Irene (August 2011), which improved habitat conditions in many areas. This was especially true at Demarest Lloyd State Park, where the sand spit at the mouth of the Slocums River is shaped naturally from tidal movements, long shore drift, and periodic storm events. These forces have gradually enlarged the spit and created habitat for the six pairs that nested this year.

At Horseneck Beach (seven pairs), Irene created habitat resulting in a first-ever nest between the campground and private cottages.

At West Island (six pairs), the storm ensured a sustained healthy replenishment of a natural berm that encircles the island and has created exceptional plover habitat there. Gooseberry Island (one pair) is routinely battered by weather overall, but a pair always finds a sandy spot on which to nest, and Irene deposited plenty of sand on the south tip. For a storm that did extensive damage to East Beach Road, and elsewhere along our shoreline, the plovers serve as an indicator that at least this was a natural event.

The lead story this season for the New England portion of the Atlantic Coast population of the Piping Plover was a less-friendly storm event that coincided with high tides and a wave of nesting, causing catastrophic nest loss on many exposed beaches. In Buzzards Bay where beaches are more sheltered, downed/lost fencing on our DCR sites resulted in only one over-washed nest. Other spring storms came through as usually happens April-June, resulting in some close passes by tidal waters near nests, but no losses, and a positive net gain in habitat overall. So in the end coastal storms are and will continue to be an integral aspect of the survival of these hardy birds.

A good hatch occurred on DCR sites due to our diligent use of exclosures, but productivity declined a bit due largely to predators that take the hatchlings.Predation of hatchlings is always an ongoing mystery, but this year we learned that Great Horned owls fly low over Horseneck at night, as a group of youths discovered one on a morning in May. An owl was found tangled (see picture) in our plover twine (don’t worry, we got him freed and unharmed). Possibly bad news for any plover, but this provides proof of a rather mysterious, interesting and natural predator on a beach that is anything but pristine during summer.

Ironically, the sands of Horseneck suffered the least disturbance in years, thanks to the plovers and timing of beach management. Many areas were left untouched by vehicles on the main beach during the nesting wave, which resulted in record plover nesting on the main beach. 

 While a downside of this was increased episodes of hatchlings wandering into human use areas, and perhaps two hatchling deaths due to heat stress on the main beach where dune cover is absent, the influx of Least Terns was a welcome effect. Pairs were attracted to pristine areas protected for plovers, were highly visible to the public as they vigorously defended their nests and young, and ultimately took center stage.

We can confirm two tern fledges from Horseneck, possibly the first tern fledges (see picture) ever on the main beach. Least Terns also fledged from a large colony at Demarest Lloyd as the first recorded tern fledges there in many years.

We thank Research Intern Lauren Horton for her assistance this season, and the various volunteers that assist us each year. As the shorebird population increases, so does the need for shorebird volunteers, so get in touch with us next year for what surely will be another busy and exciting season!