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Piping plovers make restored Delaware beach their home

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Courtesy of Julie McCall
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A breeding male piping plover

Four years after Hurricane Sandy hit the Delaware Bayshore in 2012, federal officials completed a $38 million project restoring Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

Scientists expected the restored Fowler Beach area of the refuge to attract spawning horseshoe crabs and migrating shorebirds that feed off their eggs.

What they didn’t expect to see – state endangered, regionally threatened piping plovers making the area their home.

Stormy Vandeplas is peering through a spotting scope at the entrance to Fowler Beach. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biology technician based at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Sussex County is on the lookout for piping plovers.

Suddenly, an adult plover darts across the sand.

“Oh! There’s one! Yeah!” Vandeplas said.

The bird briefly enters its nest that officials exclosed with caging to keep out predators.

Then, it takes off into the sky.

Vandeplas looks for the bird with a spotting scope, then switches to binoculars. The quick-moving bird is difficult to find again.

“They’re so fast,” Vandeplas said. “You always want to make sure you’re not double counting a bird. If the bird gets disturbed as you’re walking past, you want to necessarily know where their nest is so you want to back off and kind of distance yourself to allow that bird to go back on to the nest.”

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Credit Katie Peikes / Delaware Public Media
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Delaware Public Media
Stormy Vandeplas looks for piping plovers.

So far this year at Fowler Beach, staff have found 12 plover nests – 11 are active.

It’s a shocking biological response in an area that this was not planned for, said USFWS Wildlife Biologist Annie Larsen, who is based at Prime Hook. The Fowler Beach restoration project was geared at horseshoe crabs.

“For me, being here for so many years, did I ever dream I would see this? No, never!” Larsen said.

Piping plovers typically prefer high energy ocean-side beaches and Fowler Beach is on the bay-side.

“Wave action is more attenuated,” Larsen said. “You don’t have that high energy beach. So usually you don’t find piping plovers choosing bay-side beaches.”

But on July 4, 2016 – when work on the beach was still happening, a pair showed up and set up a nest.

Larsen says the birds can be pretty strapped for habitat. Scientists suspected a pair at Cape Henlopen State Park failed on their nests and ventured to the wide, sandy and undeveloped habitat at Fowler Beach. 

"Did I ever dream I would see this? No, never!" -Wildlife biologist Annie Larsen

“They laid four eggs and we enclosed the nest here and we did not expect that kind of reaction so soon,” Larsen said. “Especially with all the human disturbance on the beach.”

The plovers attracted red foxes that tried to dig under the nest. As a result, the birds ultimately abandoned it.

Two years later, as more piping plovers are making Fowler Beach their home, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service keeps a lookout for foxes as well as birds and other animals that prey on the plovers. It’s critical for the hatchlings to be able to fledge.

Staff have also been surveying the area several times a week to keep track of the nests and monitor the hatchlings.   

Officials are trying to limit interaction with the plovers. They’ve closed off the beach to dogs and discourage people from walking too close to the birds.

“The minute you stress them, then they don’t eat right, they lose weight and it’s all important things that cumulative stress kills the bird,” Larsen said.

The careful surveillance of the plovers feeds into a 1996 recovery plan in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic, that aims to maintain 2,000 breeding pairs across the northeast and Mid-Atlantic. There’s currently about 1,800.

With 11 active plover nests at Fowler Beach on the Delaware Bayshore, Larsen says every little bit helps them work towards that goal.

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