One year ago the Superstorm Sandy moved tons of sand inland and upward — as storms have done for millennia — causing much suffering to New Jersey’s coastal communities. But not so for the piping plover, a native beachfront bird.
It turns out that Sandy was both useful and essential to the future survival of piping plovers, Charadrius melodius. These endangered, sparrow-size birds have declined tremendously due to human encroachment over the last century. They cannot tolerate our propensity for recreating at the high tide line.
Today, piping plovers breed in small numbers on a few remaining strips of unspoiled, oceanfront beaches and dunes — places not overrun with blankets, sunbathers, fishermen and dune buggies. Four of New Jersey’s best plover nesting grounds include Gateway National Recreation Area in Sandy Hook, Holgate and Little Beach areas of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, and North Brigantine Natural Area.
Sandy’s high winds and storm surges forced our natural beaches to lurch upward and westward, as they have been doing and will continue to do for centuries. Sand was blown over the tops of dunes, burying woody shrubs like beach plum, black cherry, Virginia creeper and poison ivy, and creating fresh open sand for colonization by beachgrass and other native plants.
Even as Sandy wreaked destruction on the coast, it created many acres of new, sparsely-vegetated dunes — perfect nesting habitat for piping plovers, since there’s no place for predators to hide.
Open, sandy dunes are refuges for the plovers, as they scratch out circular depressions in bare sand, line them with shell fragments, and lay three to four camouflaged eggs. The long-legged plover chicks are precocious, running along the beach within hours of hatching to feed on tiny invertebrates.
Piping plover population recovery requires each nesting pair to produce an average of 1.5 successful young that grow into full juveniles by mid-summer.
In 2012, before Sandy, the average production in New Jersey’s four wild beach locations was only 0.79 juveniles per nesting pair. In 2013, after Sandy, production was up slightly to 0.92 per pair, with 84 nesting pairs successfully fledging 77 juveniles. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a successful story for the plovers.
With luck, most of these approximately 245 adults and juveniles will fare well in the coming months, finding prey and avoiding predators in their winter homes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the southeastern United States, and in the Bahamas.
Next spring, as the extensive habitat created by Sandy welcomes back the grown plovers that fledged this year, perhaps many more spaces will be claimed by nesting pairs, and the population of the plovers will inch upward on the road to recovery. Piping plovers may prove to be stronger than the storm as they benefit from Sandy’s reshaping of natural dune terrain.
The story of the piping plover is a good reminder about the dynamic nature of our barrier beaches, and the need to reconsider how we build and develop.
Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (www.njconservation.org)