A tiny endangered shorebird broke a record for nesting last year along the Atlantic Coast, but don’t expect to see many in Hatteras.
Conservationists from North Carolina to Canada have long worked to protect the piping plover, putting barriers around the nests to keep people and vehicles at a distance. And a release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seems to indicate their work is paying off.
Biologists counted 2,008 nesting pairs of the birds in 2019. That is 129 more than 2018 and nearly three times the number counted in 1986 — when the bird was listed as endangered.
“While we still have much work to do, the growth we’ve seen in the Atlantic Coast piping plover population, especially in New England, is the clearest possible evidence that we can achieve and maintain recovery,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service piping plover recovery coordinator Anne Hecht said in a release.
Piping plovers are a favorite among bird watchers. A black band encircles its neck with a small black strip on its head. It’s sound is described as a high-pitched “peep-lo” which gives the bird its name.
Biologists in Hatteras take special precautions whenever a nesting pair is discovered in the area, going so far as to watch nests daily to keep predators away. But officials said piping plovers don’t particularly like Hatteras beaches. The ocean rarely breaks through to the sound on the other side, which would be necessary to create a prime piping plover habitat, said James Fraser, a Virginia Tech wildlife professor who studies piping plovers.
Breaches to N.C. 12, the only road to Hatteras Island, get repaired quickly to preserve homes and the valuable tourist industry.
“Highway 12 is the elephant in the room,” Fraser said.
Federal biologists recommend allowing beaches to respond naturally to storms and developing strategies to reduce threats from rising sea levels.
The piping plovers’ favorite local spot appears to be Cape Point, which is considered one of the best surf fishing sites on the East Coast. Hundreds of anglers drive their four-wheel drive vehicles to the beach that sticks out like a pointy nose on the coastline, while shorebirds breed and raise chicks not far away.
While the surf is rough at Cape Point, pools form on the ever-changing beach that make for good plover nesting sites.
“They’re very, very picky about their habitat,” said Tracy Ziegler, chief of resource management for the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore biologists counted eight nesting pairs last year, a good number for here, but low compared to other beaches along the coast. Nesting pairs reached 743 in Massachusetts, 415 in New York and 233 in Virginia. North Carolina had the least at 33.
So far this year, only two pairs are nesting at Cape Point, Ziegler said.
Piping plovers scrape a spot in the sand preferring beaches with pebbles and shells that camouflage their mottled eggs. They and their chicks feed on marine worms and crustaceans on tidal flats where the surf if not as dynamic.
“From day one, the chicks feed themselves,” said Lindsay Addison, coastal biologist for Audubon North Carolina.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers tips on how individuals can help:
- Walk closer to the water instead of on the upper beach where plovers tend to nest.
- Keep a safe distance from the birds
- Keep dogs on a leash
- Do not feed animals near the beach and remove food scraps that might attract predators.
Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, email@example.com