Paving the Way for Plovers at the North End

To Shoo Endangered Shorebirds Away From Busy Beach

FRAGILE LIFE: A piping plover fledgling, marked with yellow ID tags, strides across the summer sand on Long Beach Island. File photo by Ryan Morrill.

Birdwatchers and scenery-seekers near Barnegat Lighthouse in Barnegat Light will see a federal/state project that got off the ground the second week of January. What are those heavy equipment operators doing out there southeast of the lighthouse? They’re scraping sand to start building habitat for the endangered piping plover.

“The goal of this project is to mimic the type of highly suitable habitats piping plovers prefer,” said Todd Pover, senior wildlife biologist with Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

Piping plovers prefer land that is sparsely vegetated, mostly level, for laying and incubating eggs. Oddly enough, temporarily Superstorm Sandy carved out such a nesting ground, and bird numbers increased the next season.

“The type of habitat that it needs to recover, or even persist, is lacking severely in New Jersey,” said Pover. “It’s not going to form unless we have a very severe storm because our beaches are stabilized. So we’re going to try to do that artificially.”

Conservationists are concerned about dwindling numbers of this sparrow-sized bird species; human use and development on or near beaches have stacked odds against its survival. That’s not to mention nature’s own challenge: Tiny fledged chicks are left to forage for themselves across pebbled sand to the waterline, dodging predators from air and ground.

“The first phase of the project that is being done this winter, in the area directly adjacent to the (Barnegat) inlet jetty, involves clearing of some of the vegetation and re-grading of the dunes to be more suitable for piping plovers,” Pover explained.

The area just beyond the jetty concrete pad will eventually have a shallow 5.5-acre pond for piping plover foraging, but that is not slated to be built until next winter. “We’re not doing anything related to that this year,” Pover said.

The winter 2019 work will not affect visitor access to the lighthouse state park – and yes, the park attracts a surprising stream of hikers and photographers even in winter.

“The work will generally be conducted in the area directly along the inlet, from a little past the end of the concrete pad walkway of the jetty to the oceanfront,” Pover said.

“There is no gate or fencing around the project, but common sense is not to walk in the construction zone,” he added. “Generally speaking, the footprint of the project is approximately where the plover fencing is up in the summer.

“Any work completed will need to be done by March 1, per the state permit, based on the time when piping plovers start to return to the area to breed.”

A presentation at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 23, at the lighthouse state park interpretive center will outline the what, how and why of the project. But for now, Pover answered some frequently asked questions for The SandPaper.

The borough of Barnegat Light is not paying for the project. That question has been asked by taxpayers who weren’t here when the outline was introduced at borough council meetings late last year.

“The town isn’t putting up anything,” said Pover. “We’re just asking them to kind of support the project as a good neighbor, which they have been.”

Procedure called for the borough to approve a landowner agreement for the project, with assurance there would be no financial requirements, officials said. There has been some question as to whether the borough really owns the land.

“That land did not exist on the tax map prior to the jetty,” said Pover. “It was ocean. The land accreded, or formed, afterwards.

“And generally speaking, accreded title lands do revert to the state, unless there is an agreement or an adjacent landowner. In this case, there is a little confusion as to who, really, it is. Both the state and the borough have adjacent land. So both the state and the borough have given permission.”

The cost of the eventual 42-acre habitat creation project is handled in phases. For this first phase of construction, the Army Corps of Engineers is providing funding and technical support.

“The first phase is approximately $150,000; that is coming from federal sources,” Pover said. “The Army Corps of Engineers is putting up that. Then state money, about $220,000 for next year, is coming from state Department of Environmental Protection mitigation funds.”

Both federal and state money have been earmarked from earlier promises, according to officials.

“The federal funding is coming from when they originally built the (new south) jetty decades ago” (1990-’91). “Some piping plover habitat was supposed to be maintained. Over the years, there was no active effort to do that,” said Pover.

“By building a jetty, you are changing what is highly suitable habitat to less suitable. More stabilized dunes form quicker vegetation … these are things plovers don’t like.

“The (funding) idea was that there was habitat there before the jetty, which over the years has become much less suitable. So some of the funding is coming from that.”

The approximate $220,000 from the state will be for further clearing and grading, and forming a foraging pond. (Longtimers note that the site did once have a freshwater pond.)

“That will be next winter; the money is state promised for mitigation to specifically go for this purpose,” Pover said. “The money is all specifically coming from sources that were supposed to help piping plovers.”

Heading up the overall project are Rutgers – the State University of New Jersey, and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife/ Endangered and Nongame Species Program are partners in work and funding. The USFWS holds the project permit.

There is one more, incidental aim. In the last couple of years in Barnegat Light, the plovers have nested on some populated beach areas farther south. Wildlife agencies fenced off the plots, but that was not optimum for the species, not to mention for beachgoers, rescue vehicles and public works efforts.

So, although it may take time, one more hope is that the plovers will be more attracted back to the north end.

“At the Barnegat Light site, the inlet area also experiences less active recreational use, fewer borough vehicles, and other activities that can be detrimental to piping plover nesting and their ability to raise young,” Pover said. “If plovers were to choose the vastly improved habitat along the inlet, as hoped, it could benefit the borough and birds alike.”

Atlantic coast piping plovers are on the state endangered species list; they are listed as threatened on the federal register of species. Three pairs of piping plovers nested in Barnegat Light in 2018 (down from five pairs in 2017) and produced five fledglings.

Ninety-six pairs nested throughout New Jersey in 2018, a 9 percent decrease compared to 2017 (105 pairs), and the second consecutive year for a decline in the statewide pair number (115 in 2016). The 2018 population is well below the long-term average (117 pairs) and is the third-lowest pair number recorded since federal listing in 1986. The statistics are from Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and the state Endangered and Nongame Species Program.

— Maria Scandale

Reposted from The Sandpaper