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Beach Nesting Birds

For nearly two decades the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife's Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP), has focused considerable attention on the research, monitoring, protection, and management of three species of beach nesting birds. Included in this group are the piping plover, the least tern and the black skimmer. All three species are listed as endangered by the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection. In addition, the piping plover has been listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1986.

Each of these species make their nests on the barrier beaches by scraping a shallow depression in the sand just above the high tide line. Skimmers and terns nest in colonies ranging in size from a few to several hundred birds, while piping plovers are solitary nesters. All three species occasionally nest on the same beaches. The nesting habits and habitats of these three species have placed them in jeopardy because human uses of the barrier beaches are often incompatible with successful nesting. The factors contributing to the endangerment of these birds in New Jersey include loss of suitable nesting habitats to development and erosion, disturbance of nesting activities by beach-goers and their pets, municipal beach maintenance practices that can alter habitat conditions and disturb nesting activities, and excessively high levels of predation exacerbated by human disturbance.

ENSP is actively responsible for managing beach nesting birds at 20-30 nesting areas, including presently within 15 different municipalities, 5 separately administered state parks or natural areas, 1 state wildlife management area, 1 state National Guard facility, 1 U.S. Coast Guard base and 1 county park. Nesting areas directly managed by ENSP account for ~60% of all piping plover sites, ~70% of all least tern sites, and ~40% of all black skimmer sites. These sites account for ~50% of the state's total piping plover population, ~65% of the state's total least tern population, and ~85% of the state's total black skimmer populations. In addition, ENSP has oversight responsibilities on all other state nesting sites including Gateway National Recreation Area, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. Coast Guard - Loran Support Unit and The Nature Conservancy's South Cape May Meadows Migratory Bird Refuge. ENSP is also responsible for coordinating and compiling statewide piping plover monitoring information for reporting to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Starting in 2001, ENSP helped initiate two separate intern projects, including one with Monmouth University and another involving a National Science Foundation grant partnership with the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, The Nature Conservancy - Delaware Bayshores Office and The Wetlands Institute, which provide students to assist us with beach nesting bird stewardship and management efforts.

The following provides a synopsis of the beach nesting bird monitoring and management activities carried out by ENSP.


Starting in early April, all previously active nesting sites are checked several times a week to determine if there is any current nesting activity. At each site monitors search for piping plovers, their tracks or other signs of plovers, as well as signs indicating the presence of least terns or black skimmers. In addition to the surveys at historic nesting areas, because of the highly changeable nature of coastal beach habitat and the existence of several long-term beach replenishment projects within the state, coastwide habitat assessments are also conducted at the beginning of each season to determine whether other suitable nesting habitat exists that may require monitoring.

During the early portion of the nesting season ENSP biologists continue weekly visits to all sites that show signs of occupation by piping plovers to search for nests or to determine formation of least tern or black skimmer colonies. Those sites where monitors locate nests, colonies or territorial or courting beach nesting birds are visited no less than three times per week to locate any new nests or expanding colonies. On these visits monitors observe nesting progress and the outcome of any nests or nesting pairs previously discovered. Piping plover brood activity and movement is also closely monitored at each nest that successfully hatches. For each active nesting beach with piping plovers present, we determine the total number of nesting pairs present, the number of successful nests, and the total number of chicks fledged from each nesting pair. Counts are conducted at beaches with active least tern or black skimmer colonies every 10-14 days in order to determine the total number of adults present, the total number of adults that appear to be incubating and the total number of fledged chicks present. Monitoring also includes assessing the causes of nest failure and noting other potential inimical factors, such as predators, human disturbance and use of off-road vehicles, occurring on the site.

Site Management

Fencing and Signs: ENSP staff typically fences eight to ten major nesting areas prior to the nesting season with assistance from Wildlife Conservation Corps (WCC) or Citizen Science volunteers, conservation organizations, community service groups or other volunteers. In those municipalities where management agreements have been developed, municipal employees (primarily from public works departments) are also involved with "pre-fencing" of their local nesting beaches. All other piping plover nests or least tern and black skimmer colonies are fenced as they are discovered. Fencing is increased as necessary to include expanding least tern and black skimmer colonies. Fencing consists of PVC pipe or steel posts and string, occasionally augmented with additional rows of polypropylene rope. Wire "pasture fence" is sometimes used to fence large nesting areas, including in recent years at Barnegat Light and Ocean City. All nesting areas are posted with "Area Closed" or other appropriate signs. In some cases, fencing and signage are also utilized to protect chick foraging areas. These "feeding corridors", which are typically used on the busiest public beaches, are meant to reduce human disturbance on vulnerable young chicks by limiting active and/or ongoing recreational activities in the areas where they feed.

Patrolling: Nearly every nesting site receives patrolling on weekends by ENSP staff (including seasonal staff), interns or trained WCC volunteers. Many sites also receive some weekday patrols.

Predator Control: Predator exclosures are the primary technique employed by ENSP to reduce the impact of predators on piping plover nesting success. Typically, ENSP staff erects predator exclosures on anywhere from 25-35 plover nesting attempts each year. We also use electric fence around some exclosures to combat problems with some predators that have learned to target exclosures. This has proven to be a very effective means of increasing the effectiveness of exclosures at some sites.

Outreach and Municipal Cooperation

Together, recreational beach use and municipal beach management activities create some of the most significant threats to beach nesting bird nesting success. Consequently, major portions of ENSP's management efforts are devoted to educational outreach to beach users and local officials and to developing cooperative relationships with municipal managers. To that end, ENSP staff meets frequently with local officials, including public works directors and supervisors, police, lifeguards, and others. During the nesting season, local officials are kept appraised of nesting and management activities through weekly updates faxed to all appropriate departments and staff. Near the beginning of each nesting season, we also present slide talks to beach patrol and public works staff who work on the beach.

ENSP has also developed management agreements with several municipalities that clarify responsibilities and provide detailed guidance to the municipalities and ENSP in the management and protection of endangered beach nesting birds within each town. Several more municipalities are currently in the process of developing similar plans. Through these plans we aim to effect a progressive shift of specific beach nesting bird management responsibilities to the municipalities, particularly for those aspects of management that protect birds from activities permitted, encouraged, sponsored, or performed by the municipalities.

Onsite educational outreach aimed at beach users includes one-on-one contact with the monitors/wardens, organized tours conducted by the monitors/wardens, interpretive signs, and distribution of informational brochures. More generalized outreach activities that we conduct include staffing interpretive displays at festivals and events, giving slide talks, and producing press releases.

2002 Reports *

Summary Table of New Jersey Piping Plover Population: 1992-2002 (9kb)
Summary Table of New Jersey Piping Plover Population and Nesting Success: 2002 (75kb)
2002 New Jersey Piping Plover Nesting Site Summaries - Current and Recommended Management (205kb)
Summary Table of New Jersey Least Tern Population and Nesting Success: 2002 (10kb)
Summary Table of New Jersey Black Skimmer Population and Nesting Success: 2002 (8kb)
2002 New Jersey Piping Plover Federal Aid Report: Population Survey (410kb)
2002 New Jersey Piping Plover Federal Aid Report: Threat Assessment and Management (58kb)

*Reports are in PDF format. PDF documents can be viewed and printed with the Adobe Acrobat Reader, available free from Adobe's Web site.

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