Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sandy Hook's shorebirds

For beach-goers in northern New Jersey, Sandy Hook is a haven for sunbathers and swimmers. But Sandy Hook also is a vitally important habitat for shorebirds.

Adult Piping Plover
Sandy Hook's relatively undisturbed dunes and beaches provide an excellent site for feeding and nesting. The nine-mile-long peninsula attracts some 70 species of birds during the summer. That diversity has led New Jersey to place Sandy Hook on the state's list of Important Bird and Birding Areas. The National Audubon Society includes Sandy Hook as a globally significant birding habitat.
Piping Plover on nest

The most protected of these birds is the Piping Plover, which has been listed as endangered along much of the Atlantic Coast. Only 2,000 adult pairs remain in existence, according to the National Park Service.

Eggs are laid in a depression in the sand
The Park Service takes special measures to protect the birds. Rangers and volunteers section off areas of beaches, including clothing-optional Gunnison Beach, to protect Piping Plovers for nesting and feeding. The fencing remains in effect from mid-March to September.

After traveling thousands of miles from their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, Piping Plovers have now returned to Sandy Hook to their summer breeding sites. It usually isn't until beach season that sun-seekers realize that the birds are back.

Parent and chick
Chick hunting for insects
The Piping Plover is a cute sparrow-sized shorebird whose sandy beach-like color camouflages it from predators. The adult has orange legs, a black ring around the neck, and a black band across the forehead from eye to eye. The only reliable way to tell the sexes apart is that the chest band is larger in males. They forage for food on beaches, moving in short bursts, around the high tide zone and along the water's edge. They mainly eat insects, marine worms and crustaceans. Their call is a soft, whistled peep peep. The alarm call is pee-werp.

In each breeding season, the female lays up to four eggs in a shallow, scraped depression in the sand. Both sexes share in the incubation, which lasts about 30 days. Once a chick hatches it is able to feed within hours. However, they are flightless for about 30 days. The parents show them how to find insects for food, and brood them for protection from the elements and from predators.

Predators include foxes, skunks, feral cats and gulls. But the biggest problem for Piping Plovers is human disturbance. Stay away from posted areas, and keep to the shoreline to avoid crushing eggs or chicks. Keep your dog on a leash or at least in check. And never feed the gulls. That entices the gulls to remain close to shore, leaving Piping Plovers, their chicks or their eggs prone to attack.

The Park Service has a great slide show about the natural life of the Piping Plover and the work being done to safeguard the birds from extinction. Gunnison Beach isn't just for sunbathers; it's also home to the Piping Plover. Give these birds the respect they deserve.