It may not feel like beach weather to you, but piping plovers are already returning to their northern nesting grounds along the Atlantic coast. These tiny shorebirds usually reach southern New England by the end of March or early April and arrive in habitats farther south even sooner.
In 1986, plovers were listed as threatened in the Northeast under the federal Endangered Species Act. Thanks to conservation efforts since then, the ground-nesting birds are making a dramatic comeback along shorelines, but they remain vulnerable.
“This population is on life support. They’re wards of the state,” says Katharine Parsons, director of the Coastal Waterbird Program at Mass Audubon. “As long as we’re going to have people who want to go to the beach, we’re going to have to protect plovers.”
Plovers, which are grayish-brown and have orange legs, are just 7 inches tall. They nest in the depressions they scrape out of soft sand in areas with sparse vegetation, often at the edges of dunes, above the high-water mark. Breeding pairs frequently return to the same stretch of beach year after year, even though they may have wintered as far away as the Bahamas. Females lay eggs from mid-April to July, and young hatch sometime between May and August.
Threats to the plovers include storms, cold weather, and humans—from habitat destruction caused by development and climate change to feet and tires trampling the eggs and chicks. Litter and unsecured trash cans and compost bins also attract the birds’ natural predators: kestrels, crows, coyotes, foxes, skunks, and mink.
Despite these challenges, the plover population in Massachusetts has increased from about 140 pairs in 1986 to more than 650 pairs now, and plovers in New England are outpacing the populations farther north and south. Parsons credits the birds’ recovery to beach management practices, including installing fencing around nests, requiring dogs to be on leashes, posting warning signs, and keeping vehicles at a significant distance.
Now that there’s a greater number of breeding pairs, the main concern in Massachusetts is ensuring more chicks survive until they can fly, Parsons says. It takes about a month for chicks to reach that stage, which helps them evade predators and other hazards.
Since plovers are recovering, officials in Massachusetts now allow more flexibility in managing the species’ habitat—for example, when it comes to driving on beaches. At least a dozen towns—including Provincetown and Orleans—allow permitted automobiles on beaches, subject to rules designed to minimize impact. Where drivers might have been prohibited from traveling within a certain radius of nesting plovers and unfledged chicks in the past, a vehicle now might be allowed to travel on the beach with an escort who walks in front of it, scanning its path for plovers.
The new approach actually provides more protection for the birds, Parsons says. Towns where vehicles can travel on the beach are doing everything possible to prevent chicks from being run over, including paying for increased monitoring. Some of the revenue these towns receive from selling over-sand vehicle stickers goes to a mitigation fund to help more plover chicks survive.
This summer, you may notice monitors with bird-spotting scopes pointing out plovers to New England beachgoers. Take a peek. Once you’ve seen them, “You don’t want to lose a single one,” Parsons says.