The Pipers of Fire Island

News Brief by Kip Hansen


piping_ploversThe 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:piper_nest_800

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?

Fire-Island_400Hurricane 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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53 thoughts on “The Pipers of Fire Island

    • David ==> I have a ‘secret’ — I find a constant diet of nothing-but-climate-wars a little bit boring — important, but it gets a little old. A little variation into “interesting things” keeps the readers returning for more. (I hope!)

    • Thanks for the article, Kip Hansen.

      We have the same problem with piping plovers here in the Midwest. Birds without an ounce of common sense* lay their eggs in sand-bolstered nests, and either have to be moved or fenced so that the offspring won’t be hit by stray volleyballs or kept awake all night with rock concerts. The problem is that if they raise their chicks where there are lots of people, they will keep coming back over and over and miss the properties that are set aside for wildlife like them.

      *Birds without an ounce of common sense include Canada geese and ducks like mallards, because they will nest and hatch their eggs in silly places like gravel outside a busy office building, or in a popular space like a shopping mall. They need to be relocated. They just aren’t real bright.

      • Sara ==> Silly birds ought to be sent back to school to learn to read and forced to obey posted signs put up to protect them!

        Seriously, if we want to protect them, we have to set aside the places they nest — these cute little birds are not particularly put off by the antics of humans — I’m not an eco-nut by anhy means, but there has to be some comon sense applied to our co-existence with wildlife — exactly why must rock concerts take place on beaches instead of at the air-conditioned stadiums we build for entertainment?

        Sometimes I think it is the humans that don’t have an ounce of common sense.

        • This is about the history of a Texas beach with increasing human intrusion. Most species decreased, one increased, guess which one—Foster, C. R. 2007. Population and migration trends of coastal birds on Mustang Island, Texas. M. S. Thesis University of Texas. Not sure if it has been published. Shorebirds show up in the Gulf in the winter thought to be from explosions of prey populations. Some of these (at least some bigger sandpipers and plovers) can be seen picking in dead fish, maybe for insects. Some species also pick something from intertidal oyster reefs, but never saw that in the oyster literature.


      • Ha! “…why must rock concerts take place on beaches instead of at the air-conditioned stadiums we build for entertainment?” Oh, that’s so that humans can trash the place, dontcha know.

        The Stones recently held their concert at Soldiers Field in Chicago. I cannot think of a better place, unless it’s a baseball field. The ticket sales alone will bring in city revenue (taxes!) and the vendors, of course, will make money hand over fist. So why have a rock concert on the beaches of Lake Michigan, never mind volleyball contests? Because people think the beaches belong to THEM, not to wild birds. If the birds went further north, to the sandy shores of Lake Michigan near the marinas and the resort hotel, no one would bother them, but they want Montrose Beach, for Pete’s sake!

        There are kildeers around here now. Some of them chose to nest in a yard full of (*junk) spare parts. They’re still there. Either the owner is feeding them, or they’ve got lots of bugs to hunt over at the nursery next door.

        I will never understand why these feather flockers won’t go to a more natural area where they are relatively safe, but they don’t.

        • Sara ==> They are “bird brains”….

          Sea creatures are the same — they happily make nests and congregate around any old junk thrown into the ocean and don’t discriminate between an old sunken yacht and a natural reef. I once tried to pickup a beer can from the bottom near a reef (we carried a net bag while snorkeling for litter patrol) only to have the can snatched back by the octopus that was using it as a door to its lair! Stupid thing didn’t realize that it was trash….

          • Octopi are one of the more intelligent creatures on the planet, but with a different type of brain that is difficult for us to imagine. The soda can door sounds like a pretty effective solution to a problem.

          • James P ==> And, it was conveniently at hand (or “at arm”, really). Octopi (or octopuses, your choice) are very secretive and in hundreds of hours snorkeling reefs we have seen only a few — the beer-can-man was one of them.

      • “They just aren’t real bright”

        Well perhaps they are smarter than you think. I remember a mallard who nested in some shrubs next to a hangar on a busy AFB. Each year she led her chicks straight through the base, wriggled under the fence and into a nearby river. This was actually a very smart strategy since there were no foxes, cats, hunters or other predators around and the walk through the base was also quite safe since all traffic immediately came to a stop as soon as word spread that mammy duck was on the move.

        • tty ==> You see, the Air Force can be taught.

          I’m curious though, what kept foxes, cats etc off the base? Was there an intentional suppression program?

      • Sara: I have Muscovy ducks and have had Pekin, Rowan and the Muscovy ducks. Not one of them actually laid eggs “where they are supposed to” and these are domestic ducks. I fought one hen this morning for the egg she laid in the 18″ grass and was defending with zeal. The Pekins were the worst—dropping eggs all over the place. Ducks just do not lay like chickens in their safe little houses.

  1. Interesting. For nearly 3 decades we took Louisiana students to the Florida panhandle to show them what clear water looked like. Beside the point, but it was also less productive. I recall signs saying it was illegal to pick sea oats, logical, but I may have a picture of what we saw showing the sign and a bulldozer behind razing the dune, maybe building a condo. During that period a couple of hurricanes rearranged the beach and the condos. We also went by Mexico Beach in its early stages, among others, pointed out the potential.

    Birds are one of the most important estuarine/ocean predators with relatively little work on their energetics in many places, direct food analysis not much allowed. They may take a greater biomass than fishermen. Saviour programs may now be somewhat distracting saving very common species, wonder what their current success rate is, but there has been progress improving populations. Breeding seabirds don’t always cooperate as also early season storms and variations in mean high water.

    • HD Hoese ==> Nature provides both nurture and danger for almost all species — seabirds included. The most successful breeding areas for ground nesting seabirds are nearly deserted sand-bar islands, both barrier islands and coral sand atolls albatrosses are an example.

      These little fellows eat little worms and crustaceans that abound in the sand at the wave wash line.

  2. Sleeping Bear Dunes is home to a growing Plover Population. Estimated nesting pairs in 1986 = 12, Nesting pairs today = 80. The single biggest threat are the %^(&^* tourists from places like Chicago and Detroit that are incapable of reading signs, they will walk right through a protected area totally clue-less.

    As of this morning one of the rangers out at the Dunes told me that they expected a 50% survival rate for the chicks this year. With 3-4 eggs per pair that will be an additional 60-80 birds. The survival rate for the first year is low, but the dynamic is there for the populations to recover nicely over the next 8 to 10 years.

    Other birds are also increasing in population here in dramatic fashion, especially a number of raptors like red-tails and harriers.

    To any green-freak I just point out the facts. Unfortunately they still often fail to see that the environment is becoming more friendly.

    • Kevin Kilty ==> It was a relief to see some good solid science reporting in the ny Times. Annie Roth, the author, did not have a hyperlink on her name, as most regular NY Times journalists do — using the Imes’ search function, this appears to be her only piece there.

    • Tom ==> Free-living/free-roaming cats can be eliminated by municipalities, counties, and States through the same type of regulations that reduced the numbers of feral dogs. Require licenses, vaccination, and restriction to the owners home/property or require them to be leashed in public. There is simply no excuse whatever to allow them to run loose. Cats found on the loose and unlicensed, feral or pre-owned, should be destroyed humanely or held until adopted (though there is no shortage of cats and kittens).

      If you are interested in the topic, I suggest The Cat Wars by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella.

      Dealing with the cats would be fairly easy — it is the misguided cat lovers that is the problem.

      • Shooting cats is humane by the way, have always done it and always will. Instant death. The three s saying applies here. Shoot, shovel, and shut up.

        • Big T ==> Careful there, Big Guy … depending on where you live, that could be a serious crime according to the laws in your area.

          • might well be…but then so is roaming damned cats! im pleased to say that no cat coming into my yard that cant do zero to 60 in 3 seconds escapes, ditto foxes nd possums and rabbits.
            if I have to register desex(or pay huge xxtra reg fees) and confine my dogs then cat owners can do the bl**dy same!

      • I have two cats that were dumped. One was a kitten about 6 months old. I took her in to keep her from going after the birds around here. The other was an adult calico that was ear-tipped (meaning she’d been in the TNR program) but she was abandoned when her caretaker left the area, and I started feeding her to keep her from hunting the birds. Now she’s indoors, too and the birds are always looking for food, winter or summer.

        • Sara ==> I almost like cats — and can become skeptically fond of various family INDOOR-ALWAYS cats.

          The Domestic cats is simply a vicious predator, a killing machine, when allowed to roam the natural environment, even in suburbia.

          Keep ’em in….that’s my rule and I would pass it into law in a minute if it were left to me.

        • We have a cat. We live out in the county and rats/mice are a problem. Owls and snakes can’t keep up with them. Cat stays indoors or confined by us. Recently, we found an abandoned, injured kitten. We fed her then took her to a shelter. Little kitten may lose her tail. Hopefully, she’ll be adopted.

          • cdquarles ==> Barn cats has a role to play on farms. Barn cats have not been found to wander and prey on wildlife (other than the rodents and birds that inhabit the barns and barnyards themselves. I have no real objection to Working Animals (dogs and cats that perform a valuable function) as long as they are generally restricted to the owners property or buildings.

            Cats will not usually kill full-grown rats in my experience. For that you need a good “ratter” — something like a dachshund which take to the task as if being paid for it.

            I am not a cat hater — I just think we should keep out pets constrained to our homes or immediate property — working animals restrict themselves to their workplaces for the most part.

  3. Best post in ages, by far.
    Ecology, a bit of other science, the natural world. Excellent.

    0% hysteria, 0% alarmism, well done.
    We really do need a break from all that nonsense, it really is getting tiresome.

    A Hat Tip and my compliments to Kip Hansen.

  4. Another species threatened by the encroachment of humans and vagabond racoons is the Perdido Key Beach Mouse. We must protect these endangered species by keeping people away from beaches with regulations, restrictions, and punishment for offenses, especially if inebriated or having too much fun.


    • pochas94 ==> No need for the /sarc tag — the Peridio Key beach mouse is endangered, but probably not by beer swigging college kids having fun — the mouse is nocturnal and spends the hot days deep in its burrow in the cool sand, venturing out only at night to eat the seeds of various beach grasses, like sea oats.

      Like the Pipers of Fire Island, it lives on a barrier island, subject to the vagaries of storms coming ashore from the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the Pipers, it can’t fly away to a place of safety, and was reportedly nearly wiped out in the mid-1990s when hurricanes Erin and Opal battered the key. See my story here about the poor Bramble Cay melomys.

      Of course, the little mouse is also threatened where human-habitation companion animals — mostly cats — are found living in the wild environment where they don’t belong.

      • A subspecies living on a single small island will always be threatened. The obvious thing to do would be to move some of them to another key, but that is probably illegal, or at least would require 20 years of research and litigation.

        • tty ==> It is surprising that a captive breeding program and re-introduction to near-by, very similar barrier islands hasn’t already begun or been carried out.

          I fear for the little mice — they may well end up like the Bramble Cay melomys. (see link above).

          • That said, Perdido Key is not small — but goes for miles and miles, similar to Cape Canaveral-thru-Cocoa Beach-down past the Air Force base, all the way to Stuart, Florida (but not nearly as long.)

  5. Ho hum.
    Another species of ground nesting birds goes extinct.
    Maybe someday they will decide to nest somewhere sensible, like Antarctica.
    Ground nesting for birds is not a good idea. At least these guys can still fly and haven’t met the fate of the Dodo bird, or the dinosaurs.

    • Joel ==> It isn’t like they “choose” to be ground-nesting, that’s just their place in the web of life. The ground nesters are particularly prone to predation, particularly by human-pet animals (cats and dogs) and by those animals humans tend to drag along with them when they occupy an area — rats, pigs, goats, etc. Raccoons also tend to follow human habitation in modern day America — and can be very destructive.

      For the Pipers, we humans have tended to overrun their natural habitat with beach homes, condos, and (according to one reader) rock concerts.

  6. As long as they can survive the winter migration these little birds will be ok. Many of them make the trip to the Canadian prairies where they can nest in natural habitat pestered only by what they expect.

    • Len Pryor ==> Yes, they are amazing widespread, but rather thinly. Most of the concern comes from populations in danger of being locally extirpated … sensible steps will help local breeding populations.

      Going overboard (eco-nutty) will estrange the general public and lose support.

  7. Another fine piece, Mr. Hansen.

    Thank you.

    I will call it to the attention of my professional ornithologist friend.

  8. ‘Near threatened.’ Meaning they are not threatened. Yawn.

    The U.S. has no such classification.

    ‘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’

    False characterization. The vast majority of the Atlantic coast is NOT like Cocoa Beach.

    ‘Today the world faces enormous challenges such as tackling climate change and ensuring food, nutrition and water security.’ – IUCN

    Bunch of right wingers, eh?

    • Gamecock ==> I have sailed the Intracoastal waterway, up and down the Eastern seaboard eight times (maybe ten…) It mostly runs just inshore of the barrier islands which start with the southern shore of Long island, New York, then in New jersey (the Jersey shore), Most of delaware is really facing the Delaware Bay, but once exposed to the Atlantic, the barrier islands start again. Nearly the rest of the way down to the Keys has barrier island, and where not designated parks of preserves, if has houses and development.

      Near Threatened is the IUCN classification.

    • Juice ==> Yes, I suppose so .. .. poetic license — this is explanatory writing here —

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