In the early spring, while local commuters dodge cold rain and surprise snowfalls, tiny birds fly thousands of miles from the warm shores of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean to the shores of New York Harbor. They make their summer homes along waterfront property at Gateway's Sandy Hook and Breezy Point areas.
Despite their orange legs and the dark band across the forehead, their tiny size and sand-colored feathers act as effective camoflage against predators. It is a little easier to locate them by their distinctive "piping" call.
It isn't until beach season is in full swing that sun seekers become aware that the plovers have arrived. Park rangers and volunteers section off square-shaped areas with string fencing and build wire covers to protect their nests from predators. Employees, volunteers and interns stand guard on protected beaches from mid-March to September.
Why is Gateway Letting its Beaches Go to the Birds?
National Parks are required by law to give up space for endangered and threatened species. However, less than 25% of Gateway's 16 miles of beach (and only about 1% of the park's land mass) are designated as Endangered Species Protection Areas. The wide-sloping, shell-strewn environment along these sites is critical habitat for these birds. This is where they will form pair bonds, choose a site for nesting, lay eggs and raise their young.
Piping plovers travel thousands of miles to reach the shores of New York Harbor. Not all of them make it. Even those that survive the trip and find a mate may not see their offspring fledge, or become independent. Predation by cats, dogs, crows, raccoons, foxes, gulls and oystercatchers takes its toll.
Human beings are the piping plover's most significant friend—and foe. Summer activities that connect visitors to the wild beauty of places like Sandy Hook and Breezy Point can imperil the existence of an entire species. Even jogging along the shoreline in an active nesting area, walking a pet or flying a kite nearby frightens young families, posing a threat to their survival.
Sharing Living Space with Piping Plovers
However, there is much that the species Homo sapiens can do to improve chances of survival for the species Charadrius melodus. In fact, preserving Gateway's beaches benefits both humans and plovers alike.
Gateway's Division of Natural Resources oversees beach nourishment efforts to combat erosion of the quartz crystal sand base along our shores. This not only keeps the park appealing for human visitors, but also preserves habitat that supports migrating shorebirds of all kinds. Park Rangers work with concerned citizens to establish and monitor safe zones for piping plovers.
Pets and plovers do not mix. The small birds are easy prey for unleashed animals. Some areas of Gateway do not allow visitors to bring their pets at all. Other areas allow pets, but pets must be kept on a leash at all times.
People in New York and New Jersey share living space every day with millions of other human beings. Humans can share our beaches with wild and endangered species just as we share our towns and cities with each other. Beachgoers can help our tiny visitors by respecting boundaries established for the piping plover and for all species in need of protection. Each of us can help keep Gateway a thriving community for creatures great and small.
Want to learn more? See the challenges piping plovers face from human disturbances by taking a look at this slideshow by Cape Cod National Seashore. (NOTE: Some images may be disturbing.)
Last updated: February 26, 2015