Piping Plover Monitoring and Management on Fire Island

A close up of an adult piping plover with a white and tan body with black markings around the head. The plover's leg is banded and it is running on beach sand.
Piping plovers are extensively monitored at Fire Island. This adult plover displays bands that Seashore biologists use to track individuals throughout the nesting season.



One of the most notable shorebird species nesting on Fire Island is the piping plover (Charadrius melodus), a small, stocky migratory shorebird on the federal threatened and New York State endangered species lists. Piping plovers are threatened or endangered because their nesting habitat lies within areas that see greater human disturbance related to shoreline development, beach driving, and beach recreation. Diminishing suitable habitat for these nesting birds also means greater competition for space with other shore-dwelling animals, including potential predators.

Fire Island protects and monitors the piping plover during its nesting season, which takes place yearly roughly from March 15 until Labor Day. Read on to learn about the work undertaken by Seashore staff and how you can help.


Share the Beach from March 15 through Labor Day

Fire Island National Seashore's annual piping plover monitoring and protection program begins in March with restrictions on driving, pets and kites on portions of ocean beaches.

Pets and kites are not allowed on many sections of Fire Island ocean beaches from March 15 through Labor Day.

Seasonal beach driving closures may occur anywhere within the National Seashore in areas with piping plover nests and unfledged chicks. Lighthouse beach, Sailors Haven, and Wilderness area beaches are always closed to driving during the plover management period.

A sign attached to a string fence on a beach reads "Do Not Enter. These breeding birds, their nests and eggs are protected under federal law."
Respect fenced areas and stay clear of nesting sites. Piping plovers are protected under federal law.

NPS Photo

Steer Clear of "Symbolic" or String Fencing

By late March portions of the Fire Island National Seashore beach that were used for nesting in previous years or that are identified as suitable plover habitat will be marked with symbolic fencing. Symbolic or string fencing consists of string with orange flagging stretched between poles. The symbolic fencing helps keep people and vehicles from disturbing birds as they begin their courtship and nesting activities on the beach above the high-water mark.

By mid-August, most piping plover nesting activity has ceased on Fire Island and the birds fly south to their wintering grounds in the southern US and Mexico.

After the chicks have fledged, restrictions on pets and kites are lifted. Symbolic fencing is sometimes left in place for the protection of seabeach amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus) and seabeach knotweed (Polygonum glaucum) plants.

Four small tan eggs with dark blotches lay in the sand with vegetation surrounding the nest.
Piping plovers make their nests between the ocean beach and the primary dune. A nest of four eggs is considered a full clutch.

NPS Photo

The Work We Do

Seashore staff, interns, and volunteers devote thousands of hours working to protect and monitor piping plover during their mating season in the spring and summer. Staff begins monitoring the shoreline in March as adult piping plovers begin returning to Fire Island. These individuals are tracked using a smartphone application to record their locations and behaviors throughout the season as they select mates and begin courtship. Symbolic fencing is in place by April and is put up in areas where nesting pairs settle between the high-water line and the dune. Fencing is adjusted throughout the season.

As females begin laying eggs, staff will monitor to determine which nests will be “exclosed” based on full clutches of four eggs and evidence of the adults defending their nests. Between late April and June, staff will construct and place exclosure cages over these nests.
A group of park rangers, interns, and volunteers carry shovels, stakes, and a rounded cage on a sandy beach with a dune in the background.
The placement of an exclosure cage requires precise teamwork to dig in the cage, level the area, pound in stakes, track the plover parent, and make sure it safely returns to the nest.

NPS Photo

Exclosures are lengths of metal fencing, curled into a round formation with fabric netting placed on the top. These structures are dug into the sand around piping plover nests and keep predators such as foxes, raccoons, and predatory birds from getting to adult plovers as they are incubating their eggs as well as the fragile eggs themselves. The spaces within the metal fencing are large enough to allow plover parents in and out of the nest area, but small enough to keep most predators from getting in. The placement of an exclosure cage requires precise teamwork to dig in the cage, level the area, and pound in stakes within a short period of time as to not scare off the parent. During this process, a biologist tracks the adult plover parent, which is briefly off the eggs, and makes sure it safely returns to the exclosure-covered nest.
A tiny piping plover chick runs along the sand.
Soon after hatching, piping plover chicks begin exploring the beach and searching for food. Their size, coloring, and wide range of movement makes the chicks difficult to monitor and results in beach driving closures.

NPS Photo

Piping plover chicks hatch between May and July and are very small – they are often called “cotton balls on toothpicks,” referring to the size of their bodies and legs. Chicks are virtually invisible during their first week of life because of their size and sandy-colored plumage that blends in with the beach. For record keeping and to identify them easily, plover chicks are banded soon after they are hatched. These little ones run all over the beach and are the main reason for beach closures to vehicles, as they begin to feed themselves and explore their surroundings. Because hatches occur at different times, this can result in lengthy beach closures to vehicles for the protection of the small, hard-to-see chicks. Seashore staff check on the plover broods daily and learn the individual birds’ habits over time. It can sometimes take hours to find all the plovers during daily monitoring.

Plover chicks who survive will fledge about 4-5 weeks after hatching. Each brood’s success or failure is recorded and eventually reported to New York State and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. By mid-August most piping plovers will have departed for their southern wintering grounds and staff begin removing symbolic fencing. Soon after Labor Day, vehicle use and leashed dog walking on beaches resumes.
A park ranger and intern look through binoculars toward a low tide flat.
Piping plover management on Fire Island is a cooperative effort between Seashore staff, interns, utility companies, other government agencies, and the public.

NPS Photo

Fire Island continues to be one of the most important sites for piping plover conservation within the Atlantic coast population. This success can be attributed to the relative lack of development along the barrier island, but also to a concerted conservation effort by Seashore staff, interns, other government agencies, and the cooperation of the public.

How You Can Help Protect Piping Plovers

Last updated: September 22, 2023

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