Piping Plover Chicks Doing Well in NJ, But What’s Happening to Adults?

One-Year Study Includes Beach Nesting Birds
By Rick Mellerup | Jul 24, 2019
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill BIRD-IN-HAND: In June scientists and researchers from New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and the Little Egg Harbor Foundation teamed up to measure and weigh a trio of 12-day-old piping plovers in Barnegat Light.

Surf City, NJ — A photo essay in the June 26 edition of The SandPaper showed a trio of healthy 12-day-old piping plover chicks in Barnegat Light getting a physical conducted by folks from the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and the Little Egg Harbor Foundation. They apparently passed with, uh, flying colors. That’s a good thing because a report issued by the Division of Fish and Wildlife Endangered and Nongame Species Program shows the state’s piping plover population could be in severe danger.

The report, “Species of Greatest Conservation Need Birds Research and Management,” covered the period from Sept. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018. It examined the state of three beach-nesting birds – the piping plover, black skimmer and least tern. Several species of colonial waterbirds, including great egrets, snowy egrets, glossy ibis, black-crowned night-herons, yellow-crowned night-herons, little blue herons, tricolored herons and cattle egrets, were also studied, as were migratory shorebirds including red knots, ruddy turnstones and sanderlings. Secretive and coastal marsh birds such as the black rail, Virginia rail, king rail, sora, common moorhen, least bittern and American bittern were part of the report. Raptors, including the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, osprey and American kestrel, earned their own section.

The news for several species was good, even great. The bald eagle, for example, seems to be thriving in the Garden State.

“The population of ‘active’ eagle nests – those with eggs – had been stable the last four years at about 150 pairs, but rose in 2018 to 185 pairs,” read the report. “On average, the population is still increasing but the rate of growth has slowed, likely due to increasing density leading to competition among eagles.”

In other words, New Jersey may be approaching its satiation point for bald eagles.

Piping plovers aren’t doing nearly as well.

“Ninety-six pairs of piping plover nested in New Jersey in 2018, a 9 percent decrease from 2017 (105) and a 17 percent decrease from 2016 (115). This continued decrease, despite excellent reproductive success, is now a cause for full alarm.”

Full alarm?

Again, the piping plovers are showing excellent reproductive success.

“The state recorded its fifth consecutive year of strong productivity for piping plover, above the long-term average in New Jersey (1.02 fledges/pair) and well above the levels believed necessary to maintain a recovery unit-wide stationary population (1.00-1.245 fledglings/pair). It also marked the first time, in 30+ years, that the recovery goal of 1.5 fledglings/pair was met and exceeded.”

So what’s the problem? Missing adults.

“This (productivity) makes it even more alarming that for the second year a dip in the population was recorded. The same pattern was observed in 2017, but it appears more serious this year because there weren’t as many unpaired adults to make up some of the difference in the pair tally. Surrounding states do not seem to be experiencing this issue and there are now critical questions about the fitness of NJ birds and their survivorship rates versus those in other regions as well as about habitat suitability in the state.”

According to the report, the majority of plovers – 72 percent – were still nesting at two federal sites, Gateway National Recreation Area in Sandy Hook and the Edward B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. “The severe decline of nesting plovers in Cape May County continues to be of dire concern (three pairs in 2018, compared to 43 pairs in 2002).”

So the piping plover situation in New Jersey is definitely a best of times/worst of times scenario.

“Hatch success was very high this year and a reduced abandonment rate bode well for confidence in biologist’s decisions about where and when to place exclosures. Chick mortality continues to be the primary factor limiting productivity in the state but the bigger issues are now with understanding adult mortality and survivorship, as it appeared many of the breeding adults in the NJ population were rather young and quite a few (of all ages) appear to have been lost entirely.”

It remains to be seen what numbers will be for 2019.

Rick Mellerup


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