CONCORD — If you’re heading to the beach to beat the heat this holiday weekend and beyond, watch for endangered piping plovers raising their young on coastal beaches and dunes. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department reports that several groups of chicks are present on Hampton and Seabrook Beaches and that three additional nests should be hatching in July.
Piping plovers are endangered in New Hampshire and threatened nationally. Their breeding habitat is fenced with yellow roping to indicate the birds’ presence to beach goers, and to allow the mating pairs space to nest and raise their young.
“Our goal is to protect these rare birds during their breeding season and manage the beaches for both people and wildlife,” said Brendan Clifford a biologist with the Fish and Game’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program who oversees the piping plover protection effort. “It becomes a challenge for the unfledged chicks toward the end of June and into July as beaches become more crowded.”
Within just a few hours of hatching, piping plover chicks are able to walk and feed on their own. The first few weeks after hatching are the most crucial because the chicks are very small, hard to see, and extremely vulnerable to natural predators such as gulls, crows, foxes, and domestic animals, including cats and dogs.
“Once the chicks are 25 to 30 days old, they can fly to escape from danger so we can take down the fences and open up the beach for full recreational use,” explained Clifford.
Humans can represent a major threat to the endangered birds. The chicks are not restricted to the fenced-off areas around the dunes, and the adults will often move them up and down the beach to good feeding areas, often close to the tide line. The buff-colored chicks are hard to see, so it is easy to unknowingly cause distress or even step on the chicks. Fish and Game plover monitors and volunteers regularly notify beachgoers where chicks are present, in an effort to reduce disturbance and allow them to feed.
NH Fish and Game is working closely again this year with beach managers to coordinate beach raking and plover protection. Because plover chicks cannot fly and tend to squat when they feel threatened, vehicles on the beach are a major threat to their survival. Beach maintenance may occur in areas where chicks are not present, as long as it is coordinated in advance with NH Fish and Game.
Protection of this endangered species is a cooperative effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the NH Fish and Game Department, the NH Division of Parks and Recreation, the Town of Seabrook, the Town of Hampton, volunteers, local residents, and beach visitors.
Beachgoers can make a big difference in whether or not piping plover chicks survive to fledgling age. Here’s how you can help:
• Watch where you step – A plover chick’s defense mechanism is to freeze when people get close, which makes it difficult to see them. The chicks are about the size of a cotton ball and light colored, so they blend in with the sand.
• Leash your dog – Free-running dogs can accidentally step on and crush eggs and chase after the chicks and adult plovers. Hampton Beach State Park and the Town of Seabrook both have restrictions regarding dogs on beaches during the summer. People should check before bringing their dog to any public beach.
• Fill in holes – Holes in the sand are traps for the tiny chicks which can’t fly. Filling in any holes on the beach helps the chicks move about and find the food they need to grow strong and be able to fly.
• Volunteer – Volunteers will be needed to help with monitoring once the plover chicks begin to hatch in early June. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact the NH Fish and Game Department Piping Plover Monitoring Program at 603-419-9728.
Since 1997, when protection efforts began in New Hampshire, through 2018, 122 nesting pairs of plovers have fledged 164 chicks on the state’s seacoast. New Hampshire’s efforts are part of a region-wide protection program; overall, the Atlantic coast population of piping plovers continues to hold steady at slightly below 2,000 pairs.
Thanks to more than 30 years of dedicated conservation efforts by many partners and the cooperation of beachgoers, the piping plover has more than doubled its population along the Atlantic Coast since it was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. Decades of efforts by federal, state, town, and private landowners, organizations, and agencies at all levels of government, have helped make significant progress in providing plovers with safe places to raise their families.
For more information on piping plovers in New Hampshire, visit www.wildnh.com/nongame/project-plover.html.