Chatham Reports High Number Of Plovers

by Ryan Bray
There are 26 pairs of piping plovers that are due to hatch this season in Chatham.  FILE PHOTO There are 26 pairs of piping plovers that are due to hatch this season in Chatham. FILE PHOTO

The plovers are back, and in Chatham, officials say they’re seeing a record number this season.

The town’s conservation agent, Paul Wightman, said the town has 26 pairs of piping plovers this season on the north side of Nauset Beach, up from the typical 21 to 23 pairs officials are charged with monitoring yearly on average.

Wightman said there’s nothing definitive to explain the higher numbers this year, but he suspects that climate is a factor.

“I think it has something to do with having very mild winters,” he said. “I’ve been out here in March when the ground was frozen. That was 14,15 years ago. We haven’t had a really bad winter storm or snow packs for quite some time.”

Piping plovers are listed both state and federally as a protected species. As such, local conservation officials are mandated to protect them during the spring and summer months, when the birds come to various areas to nest and lay their eggs.

For the most part, plovers are creatures of habit when it comes to nesting, finding their way to the same spots from year to year. In Harwich, those include a stretch between Bank Street and Merkel beaches, as well as Red River Beach.

“We do occasionally have pairs pop up at different locations, but those are the two main locations, and that’s no different this year,” said Amy Usowski, the town’s conservation agent.

In Orleans, Natural Resources Officer Keegan Burke said there’s so far been very little out of the norm with regards to plover activity this season on the south portion of Nauset Beach. Burke said there’s a total of 36 plover pairs this season, three of which had already hatched as of last week. The first egg hatched just after Memorial Day, he said.

Burke said the plovers typically arrive in mid March, and the first nests are usually discovered in April. May is the peak season for plover nesting, he said, while the town sees most eggs hatch in June.

“They incubate for about 28 days, he said. “That’s the general timeframe.”

In Chatham, plover minoring is overseen by Lead Shorebird Monitor Terry Bull and Shorebird Monitor and Beach Ranger Keenan Schleicher. On Nauset North, Wightman said staff have noticed plovers nesting further up in the dune system as opposed to closer to the tidal flats. The area offers better protection for plover nests against the incoming tides, he said, helping the birds avoid the need to renest.

“The early nests are important, because they tend to do better than the later nests,” he said. “If even one chick survives out of the brood, they won’t renest.”

Plovers are also very territorial, Wightman said. And with North Beach almost “at a saturation point” for plovers, that’s made for some feisty competition for nesting materials.

“Because there’s so many out there, they’re fighting a lot,” he said. “That’s something we don’t see that often, but it’s been increasing as the numbers continue to rise.”

Conservation officials fence off plover nesting areas each season with stakes and string until the birds relocate elsewhere. At Nauset, that includes temporary closure of oversand vehicle areas. Burke said the south trail was closed May 31 and is expected to reopen in the third week of July.

“The vast majority of people are understanding and they get it,” he said. “Like I mentioned, there’s no surprise. The town of Orleans does a great job of updating and keeping the public informed. It’s kind of the same time frame every year.”

Wightman said the North Beach trail also is expected to open in late July, although the town in a statement last week said it could be sooner because of the earlier arrival of the plovers this season.

But it’s not just humans that officials need to worry about. There’s also predators that the plovers need protecting from, Wightman said. In Chatham, non-lethal electric exclosures are used to help deter other animals from the nesting areas.

Usowski said monitoring efforts really “ramp up” in Harwich once the plover eggs begin to hatch. The Bank Street and Red River beaches are raked, and the town needs state and local permits to operate machinery in the vicinity of the plovers. She said a monitor is on site whenever raking occurs to ensure that a safe distance is maintained from the fenced-off areas.

There’s also a portion of the Red River beach parking lot that is closed for plover protection, Usowski said, as plovers there make their way into the lot.

“We try to do education. You always get one or two people who aren’t happy about the situation,” she said.

Rick Nye, refuge manager for the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, did not have a count for how many plover eggs have been documented this season. But there’s no shortage of territory to cover within the refuge, he said. That includes Morris Island and “thousands of acres” of refuge land on the Monomoy Islands. The refuge has two interns who are specially charged with finding nests and documenting plover activity with the help of a staff biologist, he said.

“In a given day, they cover eight to 10 miles of beach,” he said. “The way I like to put it is ‘You like walking the beach? Try this.’”

In the longer term, Wightman said local officials are working alongside state and federal officials as efforts are underway to update the beach’s habitat conservation plan, which among other things governs the monitoring and protection of plovers.

“We’re going through that process now,” he said. “We’re taking a break for the summer, but all of the beach managers are participating in either the advisory group or the working group to review the HCP and make recommendations on how we can improve things [and share] what we’ve learned.”

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