News Brief by Kip Hansen
The Piping Plover, a tiny little sea bird, has been struggling to survive in modern times as beaches are developed for tourists with houses hugging the shorelines of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and the Great Lakes region, up into Canada. In Florida, on Cocoa Beach, where the condos are built 50 feet inshore of the low six-foot high dunes, the dunes are surrounded with yellow warning tape (think “yellow plastic crime scene tape”) and signs are posted to keep people and animals off the dunes during nesting season of the Piping Plovers.
“The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small sand-colored, sparrow-sized shorebird that nests and feeds along coastal sand and gravel beaches in North America.” [ Wiki ] The IUCN Red List records the Piping Plover as “Near Threatened C2a(i)”. The letters and numbers mean that this species has been listed as Near Threatened, which is one step “up” (towards Endangered) from Least Concern, for the following reasons:
(C) Population size estimated to number fewer than 10,000 mature individuals
(2) A continuing decline, observed, projected, or inferred, in numbers of mature individuals AND at least one of the following (a–b): (in this case “a”)
(a) Population structure in the form of one of the following
(i) no subpopulation estimated to contain more than 1000 mature individuals,
In short, here is the problem for the Pipers in a single image:
Piping plovers make those nests in the sand (or pebbles) in areas like the one with the posted sign above. In Cocoa Beach, Florida, these beach grass (sea oats or other grasses such as coastal beachgrass, beach grass, marram grass) dunes look like this:
Up against the condos is a thin strip of 6-foot dunes sparsely planted with beach grass, back by some mangroves in many places. Paths — some sand, some wooden planked — lead from each condo, through the dunes, to the beach.
This particular area doesn’t have ten blocks of single family homes and apartments directly behind the condos as many other areas do. In those homes, and apartments, are dogs and cats, many of who run free onto the beach. Along with the cats and dogs are raccoons that inhabit nearly every area of human habitation. The cats, dogs, and raccoons hunt for and eat piper eggs and chicks (and pipers if they can catch them). These domestic and wild predators, along with human disturbances, are the greatest threat for, and cause, of reproductive failure.
This situation is repeated all up the Eastern seaboard through New Jersey and New England and westward on the Gulf Coast.
It is not all bad news, though, thanks to widespread and long-term conservation work — roping off nesting sites, “caging” plover nests to protect them from predators and in some cases, 24/7 human-guarding of nests — have increased piping plover numbers according to the IUCN “there have been overall population increases since 1991 as a result of intensive conservation management, so the species is listed as Near Threatened. It is still dependent on intensive conservation efforts, so if these cease, or if trends reverse, then it would warrant immediate uplisting again.”
The Really Good News?
Hurricane Sandy! While it may seem odd that Tropical Storm Sandy could bring good news to any environmental or ecological story, in this case, it is true. We see from the above that over-development of beachfront areas has been the biggest problem for the lovely little pipers. Well, we all know that hurricanes and tropical storms destroy human developments and re-organize beaches — especially those long thin sand bars called ‘barrier islands’. Cocoa Beach, Florida is on such a barrier island. And Fire Island, one of the barrier islands along the southern shore of Long Island, New York, is another.
This Good News comes via the New York Times in a piece titled “Who Liked Hurricane Sandy? These Tiny, Endangered Birds”, authored by Annie Roth; a lovely, if counter-intuitive bit of science reporting. Here’s the gist in images:
This is just a sample of the changes that Sandy made to Fire Island — the barrier island has been breached cutting a new channel across from the Atlantic to the enclosed waterway to the north. Huge new sand flats have been created — perfect for the lives and nests of the little Piping Plovers. In addition, Sandy basically washed completely over Fire Island, washing many homes, roads, and all those pesky, invasive predators — cats, dogs, raccoons, etc — into the sea. All to the benefit of the Piping Plovers:
For the threatened birds, this was great news. Piping plovers like to nest on dry, flat sand close to the shoreline, where the insects and crustaceans they feed on are easily accessible. But over the past century, coastal development and recreational use of shorelines have vastly reduced the amount of waterfront property available to the sand-colored shorebirds.
Ms. Walker and her colleagues analyzed aerial photographs of Fire Island taken before and after Hurricane Sandy and discovered that the storm, and the coastal engineering that followed it, increased the amount of suitable habitat for plovers by roughly 50 percent.
“Hurricane Sandy was obviously very catastrophic for human infrastructure on Fire Island, but on an ecosystem level, it worked wonders,” said Ms. Walker.
But on one island [ Fire Island ] that was heavily damaged by the big storm, the piping plover population has increased by 93 percent, Ms. Walker and colleagues reported in the journal Ecosphere this month.
The deeper cause and effect relationship lies in this bit as explained by Annie Roth in the NY Times’ piece:
“Barrier islands like Fire Island are known as early successional habitats [pdf], which means they require regular disturbance events to keep their ecosystems in check. Under normal circumstances, Fire Island would experience disturbance events on an annual basis. However, engineers have gone to great lengths to stabilize the island, and now only powerful storms like Sandy are able to have a significant impact on the island’s ecosystem.”
“Barrier islands are very dynamic systems, they don’t stay the same from one year to the next. The species that inhabit them there are adapted to these changes, so if we try to keep these systems static, we are going to lose these species,” said Dr. Cohen [assistant professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry ].
The key point for “early successional habitats” is that they must be disturbed, disrupted, destroyed and allowed to return (as is the case with forests and wildfires) in order to retain their characteristics as early successional habitats.
The barrier islands of the US Eastern Seaboard, for instance, are regularly (on a multi-decadal scale) struck by hurricanes or powerful storms that re-shape, rebuild, partially destroy, and wipe out existing flora. These barrier islands subsequently, over time, go through a series of predictable successions of the return of plants and animals that occupy various niches on these islands. Many conservation efforts misguidedly try to keep things from being changed — to prevent disturbances — which is a death knoll for these very necessary types of habitats.
The plucky, lucky little Piping Plovers need the newly created sand flats, wiped clean of predators and human development, to really succeed. Nature will continue to provide new habitats for them as the unending succession of storms roll ashore as they have done for a very, very long time. We can help them along by enforcing restrictions of dogs and other human pets to their owner’s homes and keeping them from the beaches we share with nesting plovers (and other nesting seabirds), creation of wild seashore reserves, and continued conservation efforts along the waterfronts of the world. Not every beach need be covered with condos for the rich.
The Pipers of Fire Island say “Thanks, Sandy!”
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Author’s Comment Policy:
I like Piping Plovers — they dash from here to there pecking up little bits of sea life from the water’s edge, often reminding me somehow of the Keystone Cops. They don’t seem to have any of the bad habits of some of the other, larger seabirds; never trying to steal one’s chips or dropping their droppings on one’s beach blanket. There are a lot of YouTubes featuring the Pipers….one of which, though a little bit preachy, shows Pipers on Long Island.
My wife and I have watched Piping Plovers from the Caribbean (where they winter) all the way up to the coast of Maine. You need not fear for them — their numbers are rebounding. Lucky for them, they are little and cute and comical — just the right mixture to garner a lot of public sympathy and support.
Thanks, Sandy! …. and Thanks for Reading.
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