A piping plover dashes along the beach in Orient Point...

A piping plover dashes along the beach in Orient Point State Park, watching a wire fence being put in to protect its nest. (May 24, 2010) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Two 1-inch long piping plover eggs lay in the sand, their speckled gray shells looking like just another pair of rocks on the pebbled shoreline at Orient Beach State Park.

A torrent of chirps burst forth from the eggs' anxious parent nearby as Carolyn Spilman, Long Island Bird Conservation Coordinator for New York Audubon, inspected the nesting site.

"It's a distress call," Spilman said. "It doesn't like me here."

It couldn't know that Spilman and Steve Papa of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were here to help. Their plan: Build a fence around the nest to keep out gulls, raccoons and other predators that make life tenuous for this federally protected bird.

The structure is what biologists call an "exclosure." Ten feet in circumference, the cylindrical wire fence has a 2-inch-by-4-inch mesh -- big enough that the plovers can hop in and out, but blocking bigger birds and mammals. Protective netting stretched across the top completes the job.

"It's put up for the duration of incubation, until hatching," said Papa, a senior endangered species biologist.

Without human help, camouflage is the piping plover's best line of defense. Adults have white and sandy plumage that helps them blend in on the beach. They lay their eggs in small depressions, near look-alike pebbles and broken shells.

Those tactics weren't enough to prevent these migratory birds from being hunted to near extinction at the turn of the last century. Now under federal protection, populations along the East Coast have since rebounded. But they remain under pressure because of recreation and development along the beaches where they breed.

On Long Island, efforts to boost the piping plover population during the breeding season have paid off, Spilman and Papa said. Each year state, federal and local workers, along with volunteers and advocates, survey beaches for breeding pairs, fence off nests and limit certain beach activities, such as off-road vehicle use, that could disturb or kill the birds.

Last year, there were 437 pairs of amorous plovers on Long Island, said Papa. That's more than 200 additional breeding pairs than in 1986, when the bird was placed under the protection of Endangered Species Act.

But reproductive success fluctuates. "They've found breeding habitat on Long Island, but the chicks are not reaching adulthood," Spilman said.

That's where the fence comes in.

Piping plovers arrive on Long Island shores in April and May to nest after spending the winter further south. The birds pair up, mate and the female lays her eggs - usually a clutch of four. Most chicks have hatched by the end of July; the birds usually fledge in August.

That's how it works if nothing happens to the eggs. Often, something does, and the clock starts all over again. "Each time they re-nest their energy goes down, so they don't lay as many eggs," Spilman said.

The nest she and Papa fenced in that day had only two. But they saw a parent incubating the eggs - a sign no more would be laid.

They assembled the exclosure a few hundred feet down the beach from the nest. Papa joined the ends of the fencing with zip ties, then he and Spilman put the netting over the top to keep out bigger birds.

Park manager Sue Wuehler helped them walk the fence over to the nest site. They dug a 9-inch deep trench and dropped the fence down, anchoring it with sand and rocks. They sank stakes into the ground with a post pounder, then tied the fence to the stakes with more zip ties to prevent predators from tipping it over. Then, the group retreated back to their trucks to watch.

"He's in," said Carolyn, peering through binoculars. "There he goes. He's on it."

It took 14 minutes. The whole procedure is timed to ensure the plovers don't abandon the nest. An absence of an hour means the bird has rejected the fence, and it must be removed.

Down the beach, a black-backed gull the size of a house cat foraged by the surf. After they hatch, the baby plovers remain vulnerable to predators like this until they learn to fly.

"They're rooting around, and they're out feeding," Spilman said. "They don't know to get out of the way in time. They get crushed by vehicles, chased by dogs. It's actually quite remarkable when they survive."

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