Piping Plovers

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

An adult piping plover with its chicks
An adult piping plover with its chicks

Introduction

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.

 

A piping plover standing in front of a nest filled with newly hatched chicks
A piping plover standing in front of a nest filled with newly hatched chicks

General Information

Background

The piping plover is native to eastern and central North America. Their breeding season begins in mid-March. During this time plovers can be found on sandy beaches along the Atlantic Coast, shorelines along the Great Lakes, and sandbars on the Great Plains’ major river systems. In New York State, plovers can be found during the spring and summer on the beaches of Suffolk County, Long Island and at Rockaway Beach, Fort Tilden, and Breezy Point in Queens.

Appearance

Piping plovers are small shorebirds that weigh 1.5 - 2.25 ounces and measure 5.5 - 7 inches long. They have bright orange legs, a pale tan back, white underside, and a stubby black beak. During breeding season, they have a black band on their neck and forehead and their beak becomes orange with a black tip.

Piping plovers are sometimes mistaken for other shorebirds like sandpipers, sanderlings, killdeer, and semipalmated plovers. The best way to know if you are looking at a piping plover is to check for orange legs and a lighter toned back similar to the color of dry sand. It is also helpful to watch how they behave. Unlike sandpipers and sanderlings, piping plovers do not follow the movement of the waterline when feeding.

Behavior

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.

Management Plan

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.

A brooding piping plover
A brooding piping plover

Fast Facts

  • Piping plovers have an average lifespan of five years
  • The main causes of death for piping plovers are predation, habitat damage and destruction, and human disturbance.
  • Some of the piping plovers that breed in NYC spend their winters in South Carolina.
  • Before the passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, plovers were hunted for their meat and feathers. The population increased by the 1940s as a result of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but declined again due to coastal development and recreation. 

Coexisting with Piping Plovers in NYC

  • Please share the beach. Fencing and signs are put up to protect vulnerable plover nests and chicks. Please respect these sensitive breeding areas and give them some space.
  • Help keep the beach clean. Food or garbage left out on the beach attracts piping plover predators such as rats, cats, and gulls.
  • Observe and enjoy piping plovers from a distance. Piping plovers are in NYC for breeding. Approaching plovers may cause incubating adults to leave their nests.
  • Keep kites at least 200 meters away from breeding plovers. Piping plovers may see kites as an aerial predator.
  • Keep dogs leashed, and away from piping plovers. Rockaway Beach rules prohibit dogs on the beach from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day.

Click here to watch a short video about piping plovers and learn to share the beach with them!