The importance of piping plovers, a Q+A with Todd Pover of Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey
Todd Pover is a Senior Wildlife Biologist at the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and manages populations of beach nesting birds including piping plovers, least terns, and black skimmers. We had the opportunity to speak with him about the importance of piping plover monitoring and the challenges these endangered birds face. Edited for length and clarity.
By Georgie Lellman
Why is monitoring piping plovers so important?
Well, first of all piping plovers are federally listed and in New Jersey, where I do most of my breeding field work, they’re state listed. So, in order to be able to track the species you have to have really solid and pretty intensive monitoring. If you are not doing really close monitoring you can’t figure out the causes for nest or brood loss. Because our goal is to recover the species, in order to better manage them we have to know those causes. Piping plovers are in a sandy environment, so when you get a windy day or a rainy day the evidence of predators can disappear quickly. So you really need to be there on a daily basis to be able to determine some of these issues.
What ecological role do piping plovers play?
This is a question I hear quite frequently over a couple of decades of work. I think a lot of people focus on species that when you pull them out of the ecosystem the whole system collapses. That’s probably not the case for piping plovers. We don’t know the intricate ecological web of how these species fit together, but I think more importantly piping plovers sort of represent whether you have a healthy functioning ecosystem, because those that are severely altered and changed less frequently have piping plovers. In New Jersey we are a highly developed and recreated beach so we have these protected natural areas and that is where our highest concentration of plovers are.
How did the 2020 monitoring season go?
This year was a particular challenge because of COVID and the pandemic. We did find, because nature was one of the things that people were able to get out into, our beaches were actually busier than normal in the spring, which is a critical time when birds are trying to set up. That could have impacted them in a negative way.
Generally speaking, birds did pretty well in New Jersey this year. I'm responsible for Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and that site has 39 pairs of piping plovers this season and is one of the most important spots in New Jersey and happened to do very well. Of the 39 pairs, they fledged about 1.7 chicks per pair, which is above the Atlantic Coast Recovery level of 1.5. In New Jersey this is our Achilles heel. We have historically had a lot of difficulty fledging young. We do pretty well with our hatch rate, but fledging is where we come up short. So for us to have a high level like that was a good outcome for us.
Why do you generally have low success fledging chicks?
Well, there are a lot of factors, so it's hard to pinpoint the exact one. It could be a bad weather year or something along those lines, but generally speaking New Jersey is really highly developed. In fact, beaches are so highly used that we could put a fence around the areas or the nest and keep people out but once the piping plovers hatch they'll leave those areas to forage at the water's edge. Often those areas at public beaches can’t be protected in the same intensive way. That impacts their survival. Because the breeding ground is so close to the beach area, there are restaurants and houses and it's close to sources of food for predators, so we have a higher concentration of predators around the beach. It's a combination of those things. Lastly, the factor we understand least is highly engineered beachfill, which we think probably impacts the foraging suitability. More and more we’re understanding that access to really good undisturbed, but also highly productive foraging areas, is really important for survival for those chicks.
How have the numbers of piping plover pairs changed over the time you have been monitoring them in New Jersey?
Well for me, yeah. This is 25 years plus for me, so I’ve seen a lot of fluctuation. From a high of about 140 pairs to a low of 90-some pairs, percentage wise that's a big change. Unfortunately, we’re sort of at the lower edge of that at the moment and we’re struggling to get back. We have years where we have better numbers, but we’re a little bit stuck on the wall at the moment. For the last 5 years we have seen higher fledge rates than we probably have ever seen over the same period so we’re hoping that’s going to push us to the next level.
A huge caveat though is once the birds leave you’re facing the same issues. What happens is during migration and wintering the birds spend more time away from the breeding grounds than on it and their survival during migration or over the winter impacts our populations. Hurricanes that have hit Florida and the Bahamas, where you have wintering plovers, have really bad impacts potentially on survival. So, we can have a really good year, but have a lot of mortality over the winter due to hurricanes or other factors.
What are some of the biggest obstacles to the success and survival of piping plovers in New Jersey? How do you overcome these obstacles?
Well, the habitat really matters and I think it all starts with really good habitat, but we’ve also seen situations where birds can do okay in slightly less suitable habitat. Unfortunately it's not a magic button answer. It really is a case where we need everything for them to do well. So you need the habitat, really strong protection, and management of everything from the people component to the predators.
And then I think outreach is really important. I think we’ve seen that, in a lot of cases, people don’t really want to disturb or negatively impact birds, but they just aren’t aware that their activity is going [to have that impact]. So, trying to have someone at the sites, the public ones at least, is a really important part of it as well. Communication, outreach, and management all have to fit together for a successful piping plover program.
Georgie Lellman is a recent graduate of Kenyon College and an intern for Turnstone Strategies. She is interested in environmental law and passionate about wildlife issues.
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