Audubon warning about shorebirds
It's nesting season for shorebirds, and the Audubon Society is urging beachgoers to watch out for four species that are in a life-and-death struggle to endure in a world that has dramatically changed since their nesting behaviors were established long before the colonists arrived.
Piping plovers, least terns, common terns and American oystercatchers have begun nesting on beaches from Groton to Greenwich, but their success at fledging young depends on whether they'll be able to run a gauntlet of marauding raccoons, hungry foxes, bullying gulls and curious dogs. Norway rats, feral cats, crows, humans and even litter will likely take a toll as well.
Patrick Comins, director of conservation for Audubon Connecticut, said that he's hoping to see an improvement over last year, when 60 piping plovers reached maturity on the Connecticut shoreline. So far this year, there are fewer than 30 piping plover nesting sites active along the state's shoreline, he said.
Nesting activity continues to about Labor Day.
"It's not that you can't go to the beach, it's just that you have to give them their space," Comins said. "As soon as they hatch, they're on their own, and for those 28 days before they can fly, they're pretty vulnerable."
Audubon is also concerned about the least tern, which has seen its numbers decline by about 80 percent since 1990.
"The least tern is just starting to nest," Comins said. "They congregate in just a few sites. They're very vulnerable to disturbance. Just someone walking their dog can really damage their productivity," he said. "There's a huge problem with people bringing dogs where they are not allowed -- Long Beach in Stratford, in particular. When you walk on the beach, stay below the wrack line" -- the line of debris pushed up by the tides.
Most of the piping plover nest sites are protected with cage-like exclosures designed to keep out foxes, rats and the like.
"The nests and their eggs are almost impossible to see, unless you know what to look for," he said.
He said that oystercatchers have also seen their numbers drop. These birds live on offshore islands, and are sometimes done in by people who paddle out to see them.
"The problem is that they love nature to death," he said of human visitors.
Comins said a number of species of migratory shorebirds have also seen a sharp decline in numbers.
Audubon volunteers will be keeping their eyes on known nest sites, telling visitors why it's important that they and their dogs stay clear of the nesting areas and explaining the federal laws designed to protect the birds. Most of the shorebird nesting sites have been marked off by state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection conservationists.
Among other places, the beach monitors will be at Connecticut Audubon Society's Milford Point Coastal Center, Long Beach in Stratford, Sandy and Morse points in West Haven, Griswold Point in Old Lyme and Bluff Point State Park in Groton.
"Plovers do very well with people on the beach," Bull said, "maybe because they frighten away foxes and raccoons."
Experts say that the shorebirds that nest here have done so since the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago. Their nesting strategies worked well until humans arrived with rats, cats and dogs.
"They were actually doing pretty well until the 1920s," Bull said. "That's when development along the beach really ramped up."
He notes that raccoon attacks have increased, too, because raccoons are far more numerous among humans and their garbage cans than they are in the forest. The herring gull -- the most common gull around here -- also has done well among humans and their refuse.
"The gulls, at least some of them, have learned to attack shorebird eggs and chicks," he said.
To be sure, there has been a push-back from some in the shore community, upset with the acres of prime beach real estate taken over by these wild animals.
The debate got particularly heated in North Carolina along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where people used to be able to operate off-road vehicles on the beach with impunity. Since 2008, that has been curtailed, thanks to the piping plover. But off-road operators have responded by harassing wildlife advocates, vandalizing their homes and engaging in other illegal behavior, according to a report in Forbes magazine.
Meanwhile, tourism on Cape Hatteras has increased because beachgoers no longer fear being run over by the vehicles, and the plovers are doing better, too.
"The important thing to remember is that humans can share the shore with shorebirds," Comins said. "They can only survive with intensive management to make up for the disadvantages that they have to deal with."