Endangered piping plover shows signs of recovery along Delaware beaches

More than 50 piping plover chicks like this 18-day-old bird were born along Delaware's beaches this year, well above the long-term species recovery goal. (photo courtesy DNREC/Evangelin Von Boeckman)

More than 50 piping plover chicks like this 18-day-old bird were born along Delaware's beaches this year, well above the long-term species recovery goal. (photo courtesy DNREC/Evangelin Von Boeckman)

The piping plover has been listed on the Endangered Species List since 1986 as the number of the small, sand-nesting birds dwindled due to hunting activity and coastal development that encroached on their habitat.

States along the Atlantic Coast have been actively working to protect the birds and coax their numbers higher.

In Delaware, that has meant closing portions of the beach at Cape Henlopen for most of the summer to protect the birds’ nests in the sand.

That protection effort seems to be paying off.

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For the third year in a row, the number of piping plover pairs in Delaware has broken the previous year’s record. Twenty-one pairs made their home on protected sections of Delaware’s beaches in 2020. That’s higher than the record set in 2018 at 16 pairs and the 19 pairs recorded in 2019.

“There has been a big effort across the coast to work with different state agencies as well as federal organizations to try and protect that nesting habitat and increase the number of breeding pairs,” said Henrietta Bellman, a coastal avian biologist with the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife.

That record number of plover couples produced 51 fledglings, young birds that have left the nest but are still dependent on help from their parents. Those fledglings translate to about 2.4 per couple, which is well above the species recovery goal of 1.5 fledglings per pair that was established when the birds were listed as endangered.

“What we have seen in Delaware is that with the success of our breeding pairs and the increase in the amount of breeding habitat, we have been able to reach 2.4 fledglings per pair,” Bellman said. “In other words, we’re producing one more extra fledgling than is the recovery goal.”

Five pairs of plovers were found at the Point at Cape Henlopen State Park and another 16 pairs nested at Fowler Beach on Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge further north along Delaware’s coast. Fowler Beach has become a much more popular nesting site in recent years following repairs to a dune breach at the refuge.

“The restoration project was actually never really designed for beach-nesting species, which is quite comical actually that it ended up being so successful,” Bellman said. But intentional or not, she said the restoration created ideal conditions for plovers. “Before, most of our breeding pairs have been predominantly down at Cape Henlopen. This basically added the amount of area to support piping plovers. So a few came in 2016, and as they were successful, more and more birds arrived.”

Piping plovers have high site-fidelity, meaning they will frequently return to nesting grounds where they’ve had success in previous years. That’s helped the number of nests in the state break records for the past three years.

There’s been growing success elsewhere, too. In 2019, there were more than 2,000 nesting pairs across the Atlantic coast. That’s another species recovery goal for the birds.

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But despite the success, Bellman warns that piping plovers will likely need protection to survive.

“Piping plovers and a lot of the coastal breeding species will require assistance from us, at local level, in Delaware, but also across the Atlantic coast to make sure that those species remain protected,” she said. The birds will continue to see their habitats threatened by development.

“It’s a step in the right direction and it looks really positive, but we shouldn’t get complacent about that.”

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