On a cold morning in late April, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Maureen Durkin watches as a team of four co-workers test their skills at rapidly building a wire mesh “exclosure” on Moonstone Beach in South Kingstown. The six-foot, circular structure is designed to be put around a piping plover nest to allow the sand-colored birds access to their eggs while keeping predators away.
Speed is key in building the exclosure, since the biologists don’t want to keep the birds away from their nest too long. The first eggs were expected to be laid within days, so the team was practicing so they would be ready.
“Plovers like to nest on the dune edge, high enough above the high-tide line so the nest doesn’t wash out and with a clear sight line to watch for predators,” said Durkin. “Moonstone is the stronghold for the population in South County, with 15 pairs nesting on site, but there are 11 or 12 other beaches where they nest as well.”
South County has a conservation success story to tell about piping plovers. The small shorebirds nest on beaches from the Canadian Maritimes to North Carolina, but they have been considered endangered since 1986, when just 10 pairs nested in Rhode Island — spread out at Moonstone, Ninigret and Little Compton’s Goosewing Beach. The protection afforded the birds by the federal government allowed them to rebound to 85 pairs in the state in 2020. And when combined with the birds breeding on Massachusetts beaches, the southern New England population is far and away the most successful population in its entire range.
“Eighty-five pairs still isn’t a lot, but it’s way better than 10,” Durkin said. “We’ve helped them return to areas that they nested in historically, and they’re on their way to recovery. Small populations are always susceptible to something happening, but they’re definitely in a better place here than they were.”
During the breeding season from late April through August, Fish and Wildlife Service plover monitors visit the nesting beaches every day to check on the birds, install exclosures, keep track of when eggs are laid and chicks hatch, and talk to visitors to ensure they and their dogs don’t disturb the birds.
According to Durkin, the threats the birds face are almost entirely due to humans.
“Because the birds use these popular beach habitats where people like to recreate, disturbance is a big problem,” she said. “Off-leash dogs disrupt them off their nest, people disturb the birds, and predators are a big threat. Even the predator community the plovers face is influenced by humans – they’re human-subsidized predators like crows, coyotes and raccoons whose numbers are artificially inflated in beach areas because of humans. It’s something the birds have to deal with.”
The birds are also vulnerable to being flooded by extremely high tides and storm surges.
About 20 percent of the plovers on Rhode Island beaches have colorful bands or flags around their legs as part of research programs throughout their range, much of it conducted by University of Rhode Island ornithologist Peter Paton, whose wife Suzanne, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, started the state’s plover monitoring program.
Peter Paton calls piping plovers “cute little shorebirds that blend into the background. They want to be as cryptic as possible to live on sandy beaches.”
His most recent studies have examined the birds’ migratory habits to learn whether the plovers will be at risk from the offshore wind farms planned for much of the East Coast. For the last five years, he has captured the birds on their breeding grounds and placed miniature transmitters on their backs that fall off after four or five months. The transmitters send signals to a network of antennas up and down the coast that track the bird’s movements during migration.
“Prior to our study, we knew that the birds migrated to the Carolinas, Florida and the Caribbean, but how they got there was uncertain,” he said. “We always see them on the beach, so we assumed they hugged the coastline from here to Long Island and New Jersey and down the coast to the Carolinas.”
That assumption turned out to be wrong. Rather than following the coastline, the birds fly straight southwest from Rhode Island toward New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic States. Some even fly over the water all the way to North Carolina. As a result, most of the birds breeding in southern New England probably fly over several of the areas where wind farms are expected to be constructed in the coming years. Luckily, however, the birds typically fly considerably higher than the turbine zone, so they are unlikely to be affected.
To remove the plovers from the Endangered Species List will require that the population grow to at least 2,000 pairs spread throughout their range, a level that must be sustained over five years. The population must also produce an average of 1.5 chicks per pair during that time.
“We’ve made great strides, and they’re on their way to recovery,” Durkin said. “But they’re not going to be a species we can walk away from after it comes off the list. They will always need some level of protection, because if we suddenly pulled all the protective roping from the beaches, people would be using every square inch of those beaches.
“It’s a balancing act that will require some active management,” she added. “But the future for the piping plover is very hopeful.”