Mass Audubon: 2023 Was A Banner Year For Piping Plovers

by Alan Pollock
Piping plovers nested in strong numbers on beaches in Chatham this year. FILE PHOTO Piping plovers nested in strong numbers on beaches in Chatham this year. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Once a rarity on local beaches, piping plovers are making a strong comeback, thanks largely to conservation efforts.

That’s the word from Mass Audubon, which reported earlier this month that about 1,145 plover pairs nested in Massachusetts this year, the highest number ever recorded. It’s a more than 500 percent increase since Mass Audubon began its Coastal Waterbird Program in 1986, when there were fewer than 200 breeding pairs in the state. Piping plovers remain a federally threatened species.

“Things went really well this year. There was a lot of available habitat,” said program Director Lyra Brennan. Unlike the previous year, 2023 saw no major coastal storms interrupt the nesting season in the springtime.

Mass Audubon manages piping plovers on some private beaches in Harwich and on Chatham’s south-side beaches. The towns of Orleans and Chatham manage plovers on North (Nauset) Beach, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of the habitat on the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. But in the areas it oversees, Mass Audubon shorebird monitors were happy with what they saw in 2023.

“We had some great numbers. Some sites did encounter some heavy predator pressure,” Brennan noted. “Coyotes in general spend a lot of time, as many local folks know, out on our beaches in Chatham.”

Each spring, workers with the Coastal Waterbird Program identify potential nesting areas at 190 sites around Massachusetts, erecting string “symbolic fencing” to warn beach users away from the birds. In Chatham, one large area of fencing is at Harding’s Beach, east of the swimming areas.

The story of the piping plover comeback is also a story about successful partnerships with the community, nowhere more so than in Chatham, Brennan said. Of all the communities where Mass Audubon monitors shorebirds, “I would actually say that the community in Chatham is one of the most supportive,” she said. Beachgoers typically understand the need to give nesting plovers their space, and to tread carefully when chicks are present. Harding’s Beach has also been the site of another potential source of friction between people and plovers, in the form of windsurfers and kiteboards. Town officials have been working with state regulators and an active community of windsurfing enthusiasts to keep conflicts to a minimum. Those enthusiasts tend to be strong stewards of the beach and the birds who nest there.

“They’re very protective of natural resources. They’re a great user group to work with,” Brennan said.

An even greater potential for conflict is Chatham’s need to dredge the Stage Harbor entrance channel each year, depositing sand on the beach where plovers will nest later in the year. Mass Audubon works closely with town staff and the staff of the Barnstable County dredge to get the work done.

“It’s a pretty great team out there,” Brennan said. Work will likely resume there in March or April. “Hopefully the weather behaves for the dredging,” she said.

Piping plovers weren’t the only species to see success this year. According to preliminary state data, American oystercatchers saw their number of breeding pairs up 12 percent. Researchers observed that this year’s oystercatchers produced the most healthy chicks per pair on record, boding well for productivity in future years. Least terns also experienced healthy numbers in 2023.

Thanks in part to conservation efforts, Massachusetts piping plover populations have recovered at a faster rate than those of most other states along the Atlantic seaboard. As a result, about half of the plovers on the Atlantic Coast now nest in Massachusetts, making conservation here important to the worldwide population, conservationists say. Is it conceivable that piping plover numbers will one day recover to a level where protections aren’t necessary? Brennan isn’t so sure.

“Right now they’re doing really well in the state, and that’s because so many beach managers, wildlife agencies and [non-governmental organizations] are working to protect them,” she said. But the species remains dependent on conservation, she said, and if the symbolic fences were removed halfway through nesting season, “the species would drop really quickly” because people would inadvertently step on the nearly-invisible eggs or chicks, or would unknowingly scare off the skittish adults. While Brennan said it will be interesting to see how regulators handle the question in the years ahead, “to some extent, [piping plovers] are going to need some level of management into the future,” she said.