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Volunteers Help Endangered Piping Plovers Survive

By ecoRI News staff

A piping plover at the Goosewing Beach Preserve in Little Compton. (Geoff Dennis)LITTLE COMPTON — When was the last time you saw an endangered species up close, say a peregrine falcon or a gray wolf? It’s not easy to come face to face with animals that are rare and elusive. But piping plovers, right here on Rhode Island beaches, epitomize the plight of an endangered species, and they live out the most interesting part of their lives locally.

Ocean State beachgoers have the opportunity to observe relatively “up close” the fascinating aspects of piping plover behavior and how a species of wildlife interfaces with an active human presence. For example, visitors to the Goosewing Beach Preserve get that opportunity — all it takes is a little curiosity, patience and respect.

The Nature Conservancy is responsible for monitoring the nesting success, or failure, of piping plovers on the organization’s Goosewing Beach Preserve and at other privately owned areas of nesting in Little Compton and in nearby Westport, Mass. The birds are listed as a federally “threatened” species.

Nature Conservancy staff incorporate the efforts of landowners and volunteers to enhance plover productivity at these sites. Public education also is key when it comes to managing any specie. The Nature Conservancy led 38 education programs during the 2013 season, partnering with local experts to introduce participants not only to piping plovers, but also to the many plants, fish and insects that make up the intricate web of a beach ecosystem.

Piping plovers nest in busy, recreationally attractive, sandy beaches of the Atlantic Coast. Here, they contend with many types of disturbance: shoreline development; beachgoers with unleashed dogs; roving 4-wheel-drive vehicles; Fourth of July fireworks; and litter that attracts predators.

The nesting success of piping plovers in Rhode Island and along the Atlantic Coast from New Brunswick to North Carolina depends on the year-to-year dedication of thousands of individuals and the cooperation of numerous governments and organizations.

As in past seasons, volunteers assisted with installation and removal of symbolic fencing and exclosure wire, monitored plover nests, removed litter and staffed the Benjamin Family Environmental Center at Goosewing Beach. This past season, 1,114 volunteer hours were recorded. This year, piping plovers also benefited from the extra protection of off-duty police officers, who patrolled the beaches to enforce the “no dogs” policy.

In order to have an overall sustaining population, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, piping plovers must average 1.5 chicks fledged per pair for five consecutive years as measured for the entire Atlantic Coast population. With that benchmark in mind, the conservancy’s Sakonnet-area birds were successful. This year, 20 nesting pairs fledged a total of 40 chicks, for an overall average of two chicks per pair. As it happened, all 40 chicks were fledged from the Rhode Island beaches (15 pairs), with three of the five Westport pairs losing all of their 12 chicks to undetermined causes, and the other two pair having abandoned their nests.

By early November, the annual migration of piping plovers along the northern Atlantic Coast is winding down, with just a few stragglers lingering on. The rest are foraging along more southerly beaches and mudflats from the Carolinas to the Bahamas. Here they contend with similar issues faced in their breeding range, and depend in large part on the concern and dedication of the people that have witnessed the plight of this shorebird.

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