Closing a portion of beach at the height of the summer season might seem like a surefire way to irritate beachgoers, but the majority of visitors to Cape Henlopen State Park seem to support the annual closures that protect the nesting areas of the threatened shorebird, the piping plover.
Threatened Piping Plovers Protected at Cape Henlopen
Protecting Piping Plovers:
DFM News visited Cape Henlopen State Park to learn more about efforts to protect the nest areas of piping plovers.
Seven pairs of piping plovers nested at Cape Henlopen this year. This weekend, the last of the eggs hatched, but the chicks remain fragile until they can fly, about a month after hatching.
Two miles of beach at the Point at Cape Henlopen, where most of the plovers nest, are closed every year from March 1 to Aug. 31. The half-mile stretch of beach near Gordon’s Pond is usually closed from late May until mid- to late August, when the last of the chicks is able to fly. This year the closing didn’t start until July 3 because the only nest at Gordon’s Pond was farther from the ocean shoreline than usual.
“I’d say that about two-thirds of the people we talk to on the beach are very interested in learning more about the birds and are in favor of the closings,” says Matthew Bailey, wildlife biologist with DNREC’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. Others are indifferent. Only about 10 percent have a negative reaction, he adds.
“In a lot of other states, surf fishermen are not as supportive of beach closings as they have been here in Delaware,” adds Paul Faircloth, superintendent at Cape Henlopen State Park.
Piping plovers are exclusive to North America. There are three distinct populations: the Great Lakes, Central Flyway and Atlantic piping plover. All three have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1986. The Great Lakes piping plover is endangered, and the Central Flyway and Atlantic are both classified as threatened. The total population of piping plovers worldwide is 4,000 pairs, or 8,000 birds.
Every year the Atlantic piping plovers return to their northern breeding grounds in March or April. After their nesting and courtship rituals, they form a shallow depression in the sand on high, open beach. There, in May to June, they will lay three to four sand-colored, speckled eggs, which hatch about 25 days afterward. Because the birds are not able to fly for another month after hatching, they are especially vulnerable to predators and to human interference.
For nearly a decade, Cape Henlopen has been the only place in Delaware where the piping plover has nested. “It’s the only area in the state that meets the birds’ requirements of big, broad nesting areas without vegetation that also are easily accessible to feeding areas,” Bailey notes.
The lack of vegetation makes it easier for the adult birds to spot approaching predators. Seeing a predator, adult plovers will pretend to have a broken wing so that they look like easy prey, thus distracting a predator from the eggs or chicks. The birds’ biggest predators in Delaware are foxes, says Richard Julian, nature center manager at Cape Henlopen State Park. Other predators include raccoons, crows and herons. The birds also view humans as a threat, Faircloth notes.
Piping plovers require easy access to a food source because, unlike many other bird species, the adult plovers do not feed their chicks. Instead, they lead the flightless chicks on foot to areas along the high-tide wrack line and in muddy tidal flats, where they forage for marine worms, insects and crustaceans.
The sandy color of the eggs and the birds is good camouflage against animal predators, but it’s a problem when it comes to humans, who can inadvertently step on the eggs or the chicks. The flightless chicks’ natural response to a perceived threat is to hunker down in depressions in the sand as they attempt to hide, making it too easy for them to be squashed by humans or vehicles on the beach.
“The plover has adapted to natural threats, but it hasn’t been able to adapt to human threats,” Julian says.
The population of Atlantic piping plovers began decreasing after World War II as beach areas became more developed and the bird lost its habitat, Julian says.
The threatened bird has made strides in recovery since it came under protection. The number of nesting pairs grew from 590 in 1986 to 1,800 in 2010, the latest date for which figures are available.
Back in 1986 there were only two nesting pairs at Cape Henlopen; now there are seven. That’s down slightly from the eight or nine pair seen the past few summers, but this year’s decrease is probably just cyclical, Bailey explains.
“There’s definitely been an upward trend since we started, and that is mirrored up and down the Atlantic Coast,” Bailey says.
Of the 27 eggs laid at Cape Henlopen this year, an estimated 10 to 11 chicks will survive the initial month of life and fledge, or learn to fly, according to Bailey. The survival goal of 1.5 chicks per nesting pair is about average for birds. Even fewer will make it through the precarious first year of life, though.
Educating the Public
On a recent weekday afternoon, Julie McCall had taken up position on a beach chair right beside the rope that cordoned off the Point at Cape Henlopen. She is one of 20 volunteers who periodically keep watch along the edge of the restricted areas and help educate the public about the piping plover and its need for protection.
With binoculars in hand and a scope nearby, she welcomed curious beachgoers who wanted to know why that area of beach was closed and just what was over there.
With only an estimated 3,600 Atlantic piping plovers on the entire East Coast of the U.S., “People don’t often get to see a piping plover, so it’s nice for them,” McCall says. “At this time of the year they have a pretty good chance of seeing the birds with the binoculars or the scope.”
And if the birds are nowhere in sight at that instant, McCall has a photo album with close-ups of the adults, which are about the size of a sparrow, and the furry little chicks. Because the chicks have to move around on foot just hours after they are born, they have adult-sized legs and feet from the very beginning, which makes them look somewhat odd, Bailey says. They have been described as looking like cotton balls on sticks.
The volunteer plover monitors are an important part of the program to protect the threatened species, Bailey says. “Staff and volunteers make a point of talking to people whenever we’re out monitoring the birds. I really feel like an informed public will make better decisions about respecting the closures,” he says.