QUONOCHONTAUG — Peering through a spotting scope, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Veale searched a long stretch of Quonochontaug beach for piping plovers.
The tiny shorebirds, only about 7 inches long, have one primary defense: camouflaged plumage that is so effective, they are almost impossible to see unless they are moving.
Veale spots a young plover about 100 yards down the beach.
“There he is. Just trucking along at the water line,” he said.
The newly fledged chick looks like a ball of sand-colored fluff, but Veale, who has been monitoring plover nests throughout Rhode Island for several years, knows each brood well.
“These are older chicks, 21 days old. Both parents are banded,” he said as he watched the young plover feeding. “When they’re older like this, they tend to spread out. I expect all four of them to make it.”
By the early 1990s, when plover populations had dropped to a critical level, the national Piping Plover Recovery Plan was launched to try to prevent the birds' imminent extinction. At that time, there were fewer than 20 pairs of plovers in Rhode Island.
On the East Coast, piping plovers nest from Canada to the Carolinas and migrate to the Florida Keys or the Caribbean for the winter. Most nest monitoring for the project is done by the states, and in Canada, provincial agencies, but in Rhode Island, monitoring is coordinated by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Nick Ernst, a USFWS refuge biologist, said federal protection and management efforts appeared to be working in Rhode Island.
“In 2015, we had our highest year with 99 pairs,” he said. “This year, we’re down about 11 pairs. At this point, these are preliminary numbers, but about 77 pairs. But up from less than 20 pairs when we started with in the early '90s, so generally speaking, the program has been a good success.”
This year’s plover nesting season, Ernst said, got off to a shaky start because of the cold, wet weather.
“Nesting started a little bit later, about a week or two later than it normally does in terms of the first nest initiation, and there were a few days in late May, early June where we had all-day rain events, right after some of the broods hatched,” he said. “Typically, when there’s chicks under five days old, if we have these rain events they’re not very good at thermoregulating and they’re pretty much hunkered down underneath their mothers, so we lost a few broods that way.”
Plovers who lose broods usually re-nest and the young typically fledge when they are about 25 days old. Ernst said that if all the chicks currently on Rhode Island beaches fledge successfully, the breeding rate will be between 1 to 1.4 chicks per pair. One of the goals of the recovery plan is a reproductive rate of 1.5 chicks per pair, the rate that biologists have determined is necessary for the plover population to recover and stabilize.
The increase in successful plover nesting is not a steady climb.
“Some years we hit 1.5 and other years, it’s below,” Ernst said. “Another important part of the recovery effort is throughout the region. They breed from Canada all the way down to the Carolinas, so throughout the breeding range, to consider the species recovered, one of the objectives is to have 2,000 pairs with an average five-year productivity of 1.5 chicks per pair.”
This summer, from Quonnie southward to Sandy Point, there are 27 pairs of plovers nesting at the 12 sites managed by USFWS biologists. That’s just under half of all the nesting pairs in Rhode Island.
“On those sites, so far, those are the areas where we’re fledging most of the chicks this year, especially at East Beach, Watch Hill,” Ernst said. “At that location, we had 12 pairs roughly. Right now, we’ve fledged 14 chicks from that location.”
Plovers also nested successfully this year at Napatree Point after two years of nesting failures.
“At Napatree, there were three pairs and they actually fledged three chicks this year, which was the first time in two years that we’ve had productivity at that site,” Ernst said.
Plovers build shallow nests known as scrapes in open areas on beaches and sand flats above the high tide line. The nests are exposed to natural threats such as storm surge and overwashing, as well as a host of hungry wildlife, and beach-goers and their dogs. Monitored nesting areas are well marked, with metal cage-like devices called predator exclosures placed over the nests to protect eggs and chicks, but in cartoon-like fashion, predators keep figuring out ways to get to the nests.
Lately, Ernst said, fish crows have been the biggest nuisance. The birds, known for their intelligence, observe biologists to learn where the nests are, so efforts must be made to outwit them.
“Since 2013, each year, the crows have really been an issue,” he said. “They’re really smart, so they can key into us when we’re monitoring, so we’re really careful not to approach nests when crows are around.”
This summer, skunks have managed to squeeze through the wire exclosures, so biologists are now reducing the size of the mesh.
“You have to be very adaptable. The pressures from predators change from year to year … The 2 by 4 exclosure size, the skunks were squeezing through, so we started using 2 by 2-inch exclosure mesh and that seems to be pretty successful,” Ernst said.
Plovers are trapped and banded at their nesting sites in the spring. Looking through his spotting scope, Veale can read the leg bands on the birds, enabling him to instantly identify them.
“It was trapped this year,” he said watching an adult plover foraging in the wet sand at the waterline. “That’s one of the parents. It’s so nice to be able to identify individuals.”
Veale also picks out a chick resting in the shade of a large piece of driftwood. The bird is so well camouflaged and still that it is invisible, unless you know where to look.
After years of monitoring, Veale said he still enjoyed finding plovers and their nests.
“I do like the challenge of finding their nests,” he said. “It’s almost like a game, trying to figure out where they are. I just like their whole story. They’re absolutely the underdog. They just stubbornly refuse to go away. They’ve responded really well to management and I just love them.”