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Endangered piping plovers seeing a baby boom on Fire Island, officials say

Piping plovers at Smith Point Park, on the

Piping plovers at Smith Point Park, on the Fire Island barrier beach, in 2013. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The endangered piping plovers saw a baby boom on Fire Island this season.

The tiny, puffy sand-colored shorebirds with bright orange legs which began to see a decline after World War II due to increased development and beach recreation are considered an endangered species nationally. However, through several collaborative efforts on Long Island, including the work done by the Fire Island National Seashore, the number of plover offspring has seen an increase in the past several years, park officials said.

Jordan Raphael, park biologist at the Fire Island National Seashore, said this summer was one of the busiest in his 15-year career with the national park service. This season produced a record number of 50 nesting pairs and 70 fledglings on Fire Island compared with last season's 29 nesting pairs and 65 fledglings. The plover season runs from late March until early September.

"Going from 29 [nesting pairs] last year, which was in itself an amazing thing where we could hardly keep up, to getting 50 this year… it was crazy," Raphael said.

Due to their size, eggs and plover chicks are often left vulnerable to predators. Raphael said the plover chicks resemble "cotton balls on toothpicks," but can be overlooked by humans.

During the mating season, some local municipalities and environmental agencies close off parts of beaches where chicks and nests are located to protect the offspring from drivers. Certain parts of Fire Island allow motorists to drive on the sand, but it is limited during the summer.

"Driving is the worst predator out there," Raphael said. "We could have one truck driving down the beach in an area that we close that could just destroy everything."

Another common method of protection park officials use is predator exclusion fencing to keep out common predators like feral cats, raccoons, red foxes, crows and ghost crabs.

When Superstorm Sandy hit Long Island it created overwashes and eliminated dunes, which produced more flat land for the plovers. The bird's habitats are often at wide, flat, open, sandy beaches with very little grass or vegetation.

"Since [Superstorm] Sandy we’ve seen an increase in nesting pairs on Fire Island," Raphael said. "The success of nesting pairs, once they’re established, is also due to the cooperation of all the different entities on Fire Island."

Jayne Robinson, president of the Davis Park Association, a civic association on Fire Island, has collaborated with Raphael to help educate community members about piping plovers season.

"We went out of our way to try and educate our community," Robinson said. "No one likes restrictions on the beach, but once people understood that this was Mother Nature asking us to cooperate, I think we did a good job."

Davis Park, located toward the middle of Fire Island, had one nesting pair this year, and Otis Pike Wilderness, located farther east of Fire Island, had 35 nesting pairs, Raphael said. Both areas fall under Fire Island National Seashore’s 26-mile jurisdiction.

Byron Young, president of the Eastern Long Island Audubon Society, explained that if the average plover produces at least one offspring, therefore replacing itself, it’s a positive sign for the species. On average, a mating pair produces four eggs, but not all survive.

"Anything that shows an improvement in the overall number is a good sign," Young said.

Fire Island National Seashore piping plover stats

2021 — 50 nesting pairs, 70 fledglings

2020 — 29 nesting pairs, 65 fledglings

2019 — 28 nesting pairs, 56 fledglings

2018 — 11 nesting pairs, 29 fledglings

2017 — 11 nesting pairs, 17 fledglings

Source: Fire Island National Seashore

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