The rare and vulnerable birds that nest on the Long Island Sound shore are beginning to fledge this week, and volunteers are heading to many local beaches for the Memorial Day weekend to educate the public about how they can help these threatened species survive.
The volunteers will be protecting nests and newly-hatched birds, especially the tiny, threatened Piping Plover, telling visitors why it’s important that they and their dogs stay clear of the nesting areas and explaining the federal laws designed to protect the birds.
The volunteers are working on a statewide effort by the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbird Conservation to protect not only Piping Plovers but Least Terns, Common Terns, American Oystercatchers and other species that nest along the heavily-used beaches and islands of the Sound.
Over Memorial Day weekend, beach monitors will be at Bluff Point State Park in Groton; Sandy Point in West Haven; Long Beach/Pleasure Beach in Stratford and Bridgeport; and a cluster of beaches near Connecticut Audubon Society’s Milford Point Coastal Center, including Cedar, Silver Sands State Park, Myrtle, Walnut, Laurel and East Broadway.
If staffing allows, the Norwalk Islands, Sherwood Island State Park, the main beach at Hammonasset Beach State Park, Harkness State Park, and the Sasco Hill/Town Beach in Fairfield will be included.
Piping Plovers are listed as threatened species under both the federal and Connecticut Endangered Species Acts; Least Terns are threatened in Connecticut. Their nesting success in Connecticut has fluctuated over the years, but even in good years they are not abundant.
“There’s plenty of room on Connecticut’s beaches for both people and birds,” said Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society, one of the organizers of the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbird Conservation. “We’re not asking people to stay off the beach. All we want is for visitors to be aware that these vulnerable birds are around and to take care not to disturb them.”
Piping Plover nests are little more than depressions scraped into the sand and the eggs look like beach stones, so the nests can be difficult to find. Most known Piping Plover nests are roped off and marked by signs. But as people, dogs or predators like raccoons approach, incubating adult birds flee the nest to draw attention from it; if they are away for too long, eggs can become too cool or too hot and therefore not viable.
Eggs have started to hatch this week, and once young birds leave the nest they range widely. But because they are small and well-camouflaged they are vulnerable to being stepped on, killed by dogs, or separated for too long from their parents.
It is a federal offense to kill, injure, harass or otherwise interfere with Piping Plovers. Even accidentally stepping on one, or on a nest, requires an investigation and possible legal action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The monitors who will be out this weekend are obligated to report potential offenses to the authorities.
Least Terns nest in colonies in remote areas of beaches and sandbars, and like Piping Plovers they are protected by federal and state laws.
Not all damage to tern and plover nests is caused by malevolence. Inadvertence and ignorance play roles too. Fieldwork conducted in 2004 and funded by the Connecticut Ornithological Association concluded that the most frequent disturbances to a Least Tern colony at Sandy Point in West Haven were caused by birdwatchers and fireworks (the latter around Fourth of July especially).
This year, Piping Plovers are nesting at Sandy Point, Long Beach, Milford Point, Harkness State Park, Bluff Point, East Broadway and perhaps elsewhere. Least Terns have been seen at Menunketesuck Island (off Clinton), Milford Point, Sandy Point, Silver Sands State Park, Bluff Point and Long Beach.
In 2011, 52 pairs of Piping Plovers fledged 71 young in Connecticut. The 52 nests were the highest in the last 22 years but the 71 young represented a drop from 102, 74 and 82 during the three previous years.
In 2011, 252 pairs of Least Terns fledged 76 young (high tides associated with storms washed away a number of nests). Overall, the number of Least Tern nests is down from well over 600 two decades ago.
The more successful breeding years often coincide with rainy summers, when beach attendance is low. Conditions for the birds have been good this spring but with warm, sunny weather forecast for the weekend, plovers and terns might be threatened by beach-going crowds.
The coordinators of the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbird Conservation are the Connecticut Audubon Society, an independent conservation organization founded in 1898, and Audubon Connecticut, the state organization of the National Audubon Society. Staff and volunteers from both organizations will be on the beaches this weekend, as will staff from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Both Audubon organizations have worked extensively to conserve and improve wildlife habitats on Long Island Sound. The Alliance project supports and expands habitat protection efforts by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Coastal Program.