Post-Sandy shoreline a boon for rare bird

A piping plover guards its nest outside an A piping plover guards its nest outside an "exclosure" on the outer beach at Smith Point Park, which has been closed to fishermen and campers due in part to damage from Superstorm Sandy and the proximity to piping plovers' nesting grounds. (June 19, 2013) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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Superstorm Sandy may have been hell on Long Island, but it created an Eden for endangered piping plovers.

Washovers from the storm flattened the outer beach at Smith Point County Park, turning it into an ideal nesting ground for the rare shore birds that are known for their plaintive whistles.

But the shoreline changes are severely restricting visitors who were used to taking their four-wheel drive vehicles to fish or camp along the five-mile stretch of barrier beach that spans east from Smith Point County Park to Moriches Inlet.

Suffolk County parks officials this spring placed warnings at park offices and on applications for permits that "there may be little or no access to some of our outer beach locations" due to storm damage. Officials also warned that due to erosion, they expect an increase in plover nesting "which may cause additional closures or limited access."

So far this season, about 4,600 beach permits have been sold, less than half the normal number, said Parks Commissioner Gregory Dawson.

Those who use the outer beach generally do not blame local parks officials, but they express frustration at restrictive federal and state rules.

"I don't understand how a bird that is not native to Long Island has the federal protection and people who pay taxes and high county fees cannot use the beach," said Michael O'Connor, 52, who lives near Smith Point and has used the outer beach for 40 years.

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Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the environment, said the birds "are on the endangered species list for a reason. They are a very fragile species. Their nests are tiny holes in the sand, and they are very skittish and abandon their nests if there is too much activity nearby."

The beach shutdown is largely due to the fact that a dirt road behind the dunes, popularly known as "Burma Road," remains impassable due to damage from superstorm Sandy. That leaves the open beach as the only alternative route for four-wheel drive vehicles.

When the summer season opened, two miles of beach east of the main Smith Point pavilion were open to four-wheel vehicles, but the easternmost four miles were closed.

Last weekend, parks officials shut down the entire outer beach area because of a plover hatch. Parks officials reopened the westernmost two-mile portion on Friday.

"You can't have vehicles going back and forth when you have plovers on the move out there," Dawson said. "Some people's reaction is more understanding than others, to put it charitably."

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The restrictions do not affect Smith Point's 251 campsites for recreational vehicles.

Plovers are a state endangered species, and they are listed as threatened under the 1986 federal Endangered Species Act, which has penalties for taking, harassing or harming the birds. State environmental officials say there are about 800 breeding pairs along the Atlantic coast, and that 200 nest in New York.

Dawson said five plover nests have been spotted so far at Smith Point by the county's dozen paid plover monitors, who survey beaches under an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The county cordons off the nesting areas with snow fences so that plovers can get to the water to feed.

At the 15 other county beach sites, there are a total of 26 nesting pairs. The largest concentration, 10 pairs, is at Shinnecock County Park on Shinnecock Inlet.

Plovers usually hatch four eggs over 25 days; it takes another 30 days for surviving young to begin flying, according to wildlife experts.

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Beach areas can close or reopen over the summer for a variety of reasons -- sometimes eggs don't hatch, the birds abandon nests or predators such as foxes attack. Officials advise holders of the $93 outer beach permits to monitor the county parks website for updates. Permit fees are not refundable.

Billy Lomnicki, president of the 1,400-member Long Island Beach Buggy Association, said the loss of Burma Road means that there no longer is a way for vehicle operators to go around plover areas.

"We do what we can to help the state and county, but their hands are tied," Lomnicki said.

He said his group tries to help by training drivers, creating alternate plover habitats and providing escorts to help drivers avoid nests.

"But there should be more balance . . . ," in the regulations, Lomnicki said. "The people who do outer beach camping are blue collar people, who do not have the money to go East Hampton and spend a weekend in a motel."

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