A colder-than-normal spring, a proliferation of foxes, lingering effects of Superstorm Sandy, and proximity to humans have added up to spell a bad year for piping plovers on the South Fork.
And that, in turn, could be bad for everyone: If Southampton and East Hampton towns do not adequately support the populations of federally protected birds, there exists the possibility that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency could step in with much more sweeping restrictions on local beaches, where the birds nest.
In Southampton Town, in particular, the tiny, beach-dwelling endangered birds are struggling this spring more than they have in many years. Just 13 pairs of birds have made nests on town beaches, and none has yet had a hatchling survive, though most have not hatched eggs yet.
Two nests are expected to hatch this week or next, according to the town’s plover steward, Merriah Eberts, though that is no guarantee of even minor success. The one baby plover that hatched this year from a nest was apparently eaten by a predator shortly after it emerged, Ms. Eberts said.
If all of the eggs on the 12 remaining plover nests were to hatch and survive to leave their nests as fledges, the town could wind up producing more baby plovers than last year’s mark of 23 fledges. But that is not likely.
“Typically, the town has over 40 breeding pairs,” Ms. Eberts said this week. “By this time last year, we had fledges already.”
The plovers were late to nest, probably because of the cold weather in April and May, when the male plovers typically build their nests for a female to lay eggs in.
At a meeting with the Southampton Town Trustees on Monday afternoon, Ms. Eberts said that the lingering effects of Sandy and a higher-than-normal level of human activity on the beaches this spring likely has kept breeding plovers from settling, or surviving, on Southampton’s beaches.
Beaches narrowed by the erosion from Sandy have pushed plovers, which like to nest in hollows scratched out of the ocean beaches, landward, closer to dunes and oceanfront homes. Many of those homes were still in the midst of large-scale dune rebuilding efforts when the plovers likely began arriving in late March, and the rumbling of giant dump trucks and excavation equipment may have flushed plovers elsewhere or even mistakenly killed the tiny birds, which are nearly invisible when hopping between dimples in the beach.
“With the beach erosion, they have nowhere to go but landward,” Ms. Eberts said of the nesting plovers.
Dune construction work was halted on April 1 by state law, but work on rebuilding stairways leading from homes to the beach and a variety of other projects that continued through April and May could have continued to disrupt or threaten plovers. The Trustees noted that a movie shoot had begun using an East Quogue beach as a set, constructing a “simulated dune” on the shorefront without ever having applied to the Trustees for a permit to work on the public right-of-way, as required.
Permits in spring are especially critical because it allows town plover stewards to check the beach before any use to make sure that no plovers were nesting there, the Trustees noted.
“We don’t even have an application, still, and it sounds like it’s under way,” Trustee Ed Warner Jr. said. “We don’t need [U.S.] Fish & Wildlife down here.”
Plovers are a federally protected bird listed as threatened in the Northeast. The towns of the South Fork have collectively spent some $1 million of taxpayer money over the last decade in an effort to protect the handfuls of plovers that come to nest on the beaches here. Town officials say they have been informed that if they do not show that plovers are being adequately protected by local efforts, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency will instead seize control of the protection effort—and could take a more blunt approach, including completely blocking off long stretches of ocean beaches to protect nesting birds.
Through the use of full-time plover stewards like Ms. Eberts, the towns have been able to keep close tabs on the tiny birds and rope off only those stretches of beach where a pair has actually made its nest.
Nonetheless, the birds have continued to struggle locally. In East Hampton Town, they have done slightly better this year but are still at four-year lows in numbers. According to East Hampton Town plover manager Lisa D’Andrea, there are 20 plover nests in the town. Just two nests have hatched their young; three and possibly four babies appear on the way to fledging from one nest, and a fourth apparently was killed shortly after it hatched by a predator that dug underneath the wire cage that town plover stewards had placed over the nest to keep predators out.
In East Hampton, where beaches held up to the blows from Sandy better, human beach activity has been much less than in Southampton. But a resurgence of the fox population has been a particular menace.
“There’s a nest that is ready to hatch, but we know there’s a fox in the area that is aware of the nest,” Ms. D’Andrea said. “They got the mange in the winter of 1999-2000, and their populations crashed, and for a bunch of years we had good plover productivity. But the [fox] population has been building again, and they’re a problem. We see fox tracks at almost every one of our sites.”