Every summer, New Yorkers flock to the beaches in Rockaway to enjoy the warm weather with friends and family. Right alongside them, some endangered shorebirds are also settling in: the piping plovers (Charadrius melodus). Plovers, like most New Yorkers, prefer to spend their summer months by the shore. It is not all fun and games for them though. Due to human-related habitat loss, the piping plovers are here searching for a safe place to start a family of their own as they attempt to save their species from extinction.
Since 1996, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks) has been managing the Rockaway Beach Endangered Species Nesting Area in Queens. This site is used by piping plovers and other shorebirds like American oystercatchers, black skimmers, and least terns as a nesting ground. Part of managing this site involves closing approximately one mile of shoreline to the public, from Beach 38th Street to Beach 57th Street in Edgemere. This restricted area provides a place where plovers can nest and incubate their eggs undisturbed while being closely monitored for productivity and possible threats.
The Rockaway Beach site is generally closed off to the public from mid-May through August. Visitors are kindly asked to share the beach with the plovers during this time by respecting their space and appreciating them from a distance—just as you would with a fellow New Yorker.
Piping plovers begin to arrive at their breeding grounds in New York City around March and stay there until August. Then they begin to migrate south to their winter grounds. Before mating, piping plovers will perform courtship displays to attract mates. This display includes a courtship flight in which males fly in a figure-eight while constantly chirping near the female. Males also create several shallow pits in the sand, sometimes lined with pebbles and shells, for females to choose from to make their nest. The male will present the nest to the female by fanning out his tail.
Between May and June, piping plovers lay their eggs. Each egg-laying session produces four eggs on average, with one egg being laid every other day. Once eggs are laid, they take about 28 days to hatch. Piping plover chicks are able to walk, run, and feed by themselves within hours of hatching. Females often leave the breeding area shortly after the chicks hatch, leaving the male to raise the chicks alone.
Piping plovers eat a broad range of invertebrates, such as worms, insect larvae, beetles, and small shellfish. Due to their short beaks, they mainly feed on organisms on the surface of the sand or in seaweed that’s been washed ashore. They even shuffle one foot over the sandy surface to stir up organisms hiding beneath.
Rockaway Beach is used by piping plovers and other threatened shorebirds for breeding each summer. Since 1996, NYC Parks has been following protective guidelines set out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the site. NYC Parks sets up fences across approximately one mile of beach in April, just as the piping plovers begin to arrive. The fencing is then extended to close the shoreline to both pedestrians and vehicles approximately one week before the first expected hatch date. If nests are created outside of the initial nesting area, additional fencing is put up to create a 50 meter buffer around each nest. This fencing protects plover chicks and eggs from disturbance. Plovers are monitored during territory establishment, nesting, incubation, and chick-rearing. Breeding pairs and nesting sites are closely monitored during annual population surveys to determine productivity rates, and to identify and manage threats to the birds and their habitat.