Volunteers take to Queens beach to protect piping plovers
Sophie Bushwick: It’s Science Friday, I’m Sophie Bushwick. And now it’s time to check the state of the science.
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Local science stories of national significance. July is coming to an end, and so is the Piping Plover’s nesting season. It’s a make or break time for these little endangered shorebirds. And I heard that SciFri producer Shoshannah Buxbaum is a huge Piping Plover fan.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Hey Sophie! Yeah, I mean, I’ve been obsessed with them since I first heard about them six years ago.
Sophie Bushwick: I know it’s pretty rare to see a piping plover flying on the beach. But how many are left?
Shoshannah Buxbaum: So there are about 8,000 piping plovers worldwide! To put this into context, birders are often very excited to see a rare bird like a snowy owl. But, there are about 28,000 snowy owls in the world – which is still not enough and not many. But that’s more than three times the number of piping plovers.
Sophie Bushwick: Why are there so few piping plovers? How did they become an endangered species?
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Piping plovers like to nest along water in the open, which makes their babies very vulnerable or even a predator to swallow them. But, a very important factor here is well, us. We take prime nesting real estate on the beach. The good news is that there are people trying to protect plovers.
Sophie Bushwick: And you have to go see some plovers up close?
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Yeah! Definitely the highlight of my year! Last week I went to visit a protected area at Fort Tilden, a New York beach on the Rockaways, one of the toughest terrains for these little birds. And I spoke with the volunteers who are dedicated to their safety.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: We are getting closer. This will be my first, my first IRL Piping Plover.
Chris Allieri: Oh my God. You will enjoy.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: I’m so excited. I have seen so many pictures of them.
Chris Allieri: I get excited every time I see them. Yeah, there’s the adult and there’s the chick right there, that chick gets pretty big. This is a very nice sized chick.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Aww. Oh my God. It’s so little. They just like to trot. They look like they are almost floating above the sand. Yes, they go so fast.
Chris Allieri: Look at the adult. That, that, that moves one of its feet in front to make things go up in the sand. And if you also watch the little chick, he watches his parent do the same thing. And one of the things also is that they, they respond to certain calls, but just like human children, they don’t always listen to their parents.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: If you’ve never seen them, piping plovers look like a cotton ball on two sticks, with a small black ring around their necks. They are tiny and very easy to miss if you don’t look for them. Fortunately, I had an experienced guide.
Chris Allieri: I am Chris Allieri. I am the founder of NYC Plover Project. I grew up on the beaches of South Jersey, at the southern tip of Long Beach Island in Holgate, New Jersey, which now happens to be the most important location for New Jersey plovers. But I had never seen them up close. And fast forward to the start of the pandemic. I was here in March 2020 and saw a piping plover running past me, then another, then another. I saw six or seven and they were point blank. And then I saw dogs off leash. I saw children in the dunes. I didn’t see any signage and it was just like, what’s going on? I mean, I’m like, waving my fist and I’m like, shaking with excitement and also with anger.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: So Chris decided to channel that anger into action. And he founded the NYC Plover Project. The following spring, he partnered with the National Park Service to implement closures all along the Rockaway Peninsula. They are run by a host of dedicated volunteers. And now, in its second year, the nonprofit has about 75 volunteers. And they’ve logged around 2,000 hours so far this season.
Chris Allieri: Meet our volunteer, Leann.
Lean Beard: Hi. Delighted to meet you.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Hello, Lean.
Chris Allieri: She’s working on our closing right now. What’s the story right now?
Lean Beard: There was someone in the, uh, roped-off area. We had a runner like knock through. And I was like, Hey, this is a, there’s an endangered bird here. They were like outside the bounded area for a while. *laugh*
Chris Allieri: That’s what happens when you close a beach. Chicks and birds will immediately come out of the closure, because it is not enough. They’re like, no, no, no. We meant the whole beach!
Shoshannah Buxbaum: The volunteers have a deceptively hard job. They are the performers. And if someone crosses the closed area, tries to bring their dog, which is a no-no, they should politely tell them to move to another path. Most people are respectful, but this is New York after all. And right now it’s the very end of the breeding season. And Chris, he’s taking no chances.
Chris Allieri: And it’s like at this point in the season, it’s, uh, we’re not in a high tolerance mode. *laughs* Uh, you know, you’re gonna have a conversation, you know, you’re gonna have a conversation.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: In the 45 or so minutes that I was standing near the Fort Tilden beach closure, Chris called the park police twice, one person who walked through the closure area and then a group with a dog that we had already asked to leave but tried to enter again. .
Chris Allieri: And I mean, some people might think that’s awkward, but here, look, we had a chick trampled, on this beach right here two days ago. So we can’t be too careful.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: And the chick was sent to a rehab in Delaware… but, unfortunately, the chick didn’t survive. And these plover chicks are up against a lot. Their list of predators is, shall we say, long.
Chris Allieri: We see ghost crabs, raccoons, feral cats, dogs, we had a drone incident where birds were attacking the drone, then everyone’s chicks went everywhere. When things like a drone or fireworks appear, all bets are off, right? As if that only created a terrorist event.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: So why do plovers return every year to such a precarious place to nest?
Chris Allieri: Well, the sad truth is that from Delaware to Maine. There are very few beaches without people. So with that, uh, they’re creatures of habit. And so they’re going to keep coming back to those beaches to find food sources.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: Piping plovers migrate from Florida and South Carolina, some to the Caribbean. They arrive in March. But, they don’t start nesting until April or May. This year, 49 breeding pairs are nesting on New York beaches. And just two fledglings, that is, chicks that have learned to fly. And I hope the baby I saw on the beach at Fort Tilden will be newborn number three. But piping plovers born on beaches surrounded by people, like these city birds, tend to be smaller, have lower survival rates, and take longer to mature enough to fly.
Chris Allieri: It’s hard not to get discouraged. It’s hard not to get sentimental. But, like, in this job, there’s no time for that. Right? And plovers don’t have time for that. Right? So like the next day I saw this happen many times they lost one, two, three, four of their chicks or their nest was destroyed. And then the next day, they start again, copulate and try again.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: And Chris is inspired by plovers – carry on. Keep advocating for more and better closures, keep educating the public.
Chris Allieri: These are large, complicated beaches. But it is not impossible. We have seen the success of endangered species, such as the bald eagle. Right? We can now see bald eagles in New York.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: And the thing that really drives Chris forward? Teach the next generation.
Chris Allieri: And when I can show young people, like she’s a parent, she’s a girl like really close. I mean, it’s like, so-and-so, a gift to be able to do that. I feel like I’m passing on something that someone was kind enough to pass on to me.
Shoshannah Buxbaum: For Science Friday, I’m Shoshannah Buxbaum.