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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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