As of the summer solstice, the Lloyd Center staff experienced a plover season free of destructive weather events that typically ruin fencing and overwash eggs, and the conflicts of human recreation interests that we encountered in 2013. However, a growing Least Tern Colony at Horseneck was probably the best news going, as plover predators were back with a vengeance and taking their toll. The seemingly annual event of hatchling vanishings at Horseneck Beach was occurring again at the site’s east refuge, and at both Demarest Lloyd and West Island nest predation rates were the highest seen in some time, each site having their “wild side” heavily on display this year.
At Demarest Lloyd various predators were either taking eggs, consuming hatchlings, or causing nest abandonment for exclosed nests. At minimum, crow, grackle, grey fox (not coyote as previously suspected), and possibly a heron species were all responsible to some degree. It was concluded that the grey foxes were responsible for the greatest losses. A late nest close to the high tide line produced three fledges but was the only other pair to produce chicks this year. So although a strong finish at Demarest didn’t occur as hoped, this year’s predator troubles in one sense depict a natural, diverse, vibrant ecosystem that encompasses the park and is self-regulating. For a vulnerable endangered species like piping plovers, a sub-population packed densely in the center of such a system is simply a buffet for the taking.
Worth noting: there are two Diamondback Terrapin nests under protection with a total of about 30 eggs under incubation in what was the plover refuge, the nests likely to hatch in late September or early October. Stay tuned for an update on the outcome of these endangered turtles that are part of the inherent diversity here, and thus far escaped the buffet!
West Island has a comparably diverse ecosystem with beach, salt marsh, estuary, dune, and woodland habitats packed into a small area with an island effect, causing perhaps even higher densities of certain potential predators, creating its own set of challenges for predator management. Add in the human element on a site where plover refuges are narrow and beachgoer (and dog) passage is regular, and West Island is clearly the more challenging site to manage. The West Island season concluded in similar fashion to Demarest Lloyd, with only two pairs producing young, although for West Island productivity improved slightly. The successful pairs, as observed at Demarest Lloyd, re-nested close to the high tide line, and only one chick vanished between them. One of the successful West Island pairs included the infamous town spit pair which nests closest to human activity and finally laid eggs after being bullied by crows. And although fledging again occurred for unexclosed nests, the excessive nest loss early on of unexclosed nests calls for a return to predator exclosure use on the island next season. We hope the cycles of nature will work in our favor, and plovers will hatch from exclosed nests as they have in the past.
At Horseneck, our hope of a productive final stretch of later nesting in the west end dune areas was rewarded. Twelve fledges were produced there, for a total of fifteen fledges at Horseneck, a total not reached in over a decade (2001). In contrast to the east dune areas where we suspect dense cobble may hinder hatchling movements, the west dunes provide smooth sand for walking, extensive vegetation for cover, and quick access to the wrack line food source. Fortunately, the one issue of high human disturbance from recreational activity near symbolic fencing, and park vehicles, didn’t take its toll. Whether it was Great Horned Owl, coyote (also abundant at site) or some other animal, the predation threat of recent years was absent, and plovers returned to prominence at Horseneck, and where broods of fledges were a feature in July. We can only hope our luck continues next season, when perhaps the cobbled east end will also be successful.
To many, the Least Tern colony that skyrocketed to nearly 80 pairs and was highly productive was the lead story, as any beachgoer that ventured too close to the colony would attest. The east dune edge of the main beach and the rest of the east refuge provided optimum cover for fledges that merely waited to be served seafood. Pairs again spread onto the east fringes of the main beach, and increased slightly this season in the footprint of the old headquarters. This area beyond the paved road was roped off with tern hatchlings and fledges roaming about the area well into August. The terns will surely be back in force at Horseneck next year as the colony has claimed the half of the beach where plovers have struggled.
Worthy of mentioning, in light of the interconnectedness of all plover sites in Bristol County (and beyond), is the success at Allens Pond (31 fledges), the best since 1995 (30 fledges), due in part to intensive predator management there. This outcome, the success at Horseneck, and handfuls of fledges at other smaller sites, resulted in the most fledges (80) ever for Bristol County as a whole. This all but ensures a busy 2015 as pairs often return to sites and locations where past success was enjoyed.
We thank those assisting on the DCR beaches which the Lloyd Center oversees, and can’t be completed without your help. This includes, first and foremost, Interns Meagan Rafferty-Jones and Melissa Benjamin, for their long monitoring hours and completing the 2014 season as Plover Interns. We also thank the various volunteers and casual observers that also provide valuable information throughout the season. See you out on the beach in 2015!