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Like teenage boys, tiger sharks gobble up virtually everything in sight. From sea turtles and license plates to an entire chicken coop and a horse head: You name it, it’s been found in a tiger shark’s stomach.

Even so, Marcus Drymon, a marine fisheries ecologist at Mississippi State University who studies tiger sharks, didn’t expect one of his study subjects to stress vomit feathers onto the deck of his boat in 2010. Further inspection revealed that the plumes belonged to a Brown Thrasher, a slender songbird that frequents gardens and thickets in the eastern United States.

Intrigued, Drymon checked the scientific literature for clues. He found a few documented cases of the apex predators snacking on land birds, starting with a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that was devoured off Florida’s Gulf Coast in 1961. But no one knew whether bite-sized morsels like warblers, wrens, and sparrows were a regular part of the tiger shark diet, or whether they were anomalies like the horse head and the chicken coop.

Drymon has been looking into the matter ever since—and appears to have solved the mystery in part. His findings, published in Ecology this week, suggest that whenever storms kill migrating birds over the Gulf of Mexico, tiger sharks receive a “windfall of nutrients from the sky,” he says. “It’s an example of how two completely disparate food webs can interact in a way we wouldn’t have predicted.”

Roughly two billion birds cross the Gulf of Mexico each spring, and even more likely fly back over it in the fall. Some are inevitably blown into the sea by storms, or crash onto the waves while facing headwinds, fog, or disorienting lights from oil and gas platforms. “Once they hit the water, they’re pretty much done,” says co-author Auriel Fournier, a Mississippi State ornithologist, who points out that even the healthiest land birds typically can’t get airborne when their feathers are soaked.

That’s when the sharks pounce, snapping up already-doomed individuals that are at or just below the surface of the waves. Drymon, who hopes to one day witness this phenomenon in action, suspects that tiger sharks prey on passerines in the same spectacular fashion they devour albatross fledglings in the Hawaiian islands: They lift their upper jaw out of the water and drag the bird down in one swift move, he says.

Interestingly, no other shark species seems to be taking advantage of this easy, migratory food source; as far as we know, worldwide only tiger sharks have developed a taste for marine and terrestrial birds, Drymon says. He does his research off the coast of Alabama and Mississippi, using a mile-long line with 100 baited hooks to haul in large fishy predators. He and his team then wrestle each catch onto the boat—no easy task, considering tiger sharks grow up to 15 feet long and are quick to bite—and pump its stomach with a basic, clear tube. In most cases, the animal is released unharmed.

Marcus Drymon (right) and a colleague gather stomach contents from a young tiger shark in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: David Hay Jones

Between 2010 and 2018, Drymon examined the stomach contents of 105 tiger sharks and found bird remains in 41 of them. Most were too masticated to identify by sight, so Drymon shipped them to the Field Museum in Chicago, where researchers used DNA barcoding tests to determine their origins.

Many of the samples were either too putrid or tainted with other creatures’ DNA for successful genetic analysis. Nonetheless, Kevin Feldheim, lab manager at the Field Museum’s Pritzker Laboratory, and Fournier were able to ID 13 of the 41 birds.

“When [Marcus] told me they were from tiger shark stomachs I assumed they would all be from marine birds like pelicans or gulls or something like that,” Feldheim says. Instead, 12 of the 13 remains were of small land birds, including a Barn Swallow, a Marsh Wren, an Eastern Kingbird, a Common Yellowthroat, and a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Even the one water bird, an American Coot, registered as an oddity for the deep Gulf waters.

Data from eBird shows that these species were generally being eaten during their peak migration time for the region, leading the team to believe that tiger sharks, like birders, actively search for fallout. In fact, 11 of the 13 digested specimens had been flying through in autumn, when the northern Gulf becomes a known hotspot for young tiger sharks. Drymon has a hunch that female tiger sharks choose to give birth in the area so that their babies can dine on the birds that drop down like manna from heaven. “It’s something easy for them to eat before they gain the hunting skills of an adult,” he says—not all too different from a high schooler cooking a frozen pizza. Hey, they have to get their calories somewhere.

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Greg Shriver and Chris Elphick have spent the last decade agonizing over the Saltmarsh Sparrow’s extinction. Both ecologists began studying the scrappy, sherbert-faced bird in the mid-2000s to better understand how its nesting habits revolve around the shoreline grasses and ebbing tides of the Atlantic. Both soon realized that the bird's uniquely adapted subject wouldn’t survive the next century, due to intensifying flooding, predation, and development along its East Coast range.

Elphick and Shriver’s analyses showed a yearly 9 percent decline in the sparrow’s population—enough, they believed, to warrant consideration for federal protections. So, in 2016, they took all the evidence they’d amassed with the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program and made their case with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The agency agreed to kick off the decision-making process in 2019; but last month it suddenly switched course and said it would put off reviewing the sparrow for an endangered species listing until 2023, according to scientists present at the announcement.

“The 2023 time will allow us to incorporate additional information about management efforts that are at an early stage,” confirms Meagan Racey, public affairs specialist for USFWS, Northeast Region. She adds that the agency may reconsider the revised schedule if circumstances around the species become more urgent.

The data USFWS is looking for will come from the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, an independent research network of federal and state wildlife departments, nonprofits like Audubon, and researchers like Shriver and Elphick focused on protecting marine marshes and their birds. The initiative, which launched back in 2014, is funded by the agency but holds no clout when it comes to endangered species list decisions, says Aimee Weldon, its coordinator.

Sparrow nestlings are vulnerable to tides and predators like gulls and rodents. Photo: Samuel Roberts

This summer the venture will release an action plan that outlines ways to help Saltmarsh Sparrows cope with sea level rise on the most affected parts of the coast. USFWS says it will wrap the venture’s suggestions, which include building tide gates, digging connector creeks to drain floodwaters, and shaping restoration around shifts in the bird’s habitat, along with a pending business plan, into its own work to establish a Saltmarsh Sparrow program. Whether that vision will actually be funded and executed before 2023 still remains a question. “We have had a lot of discussions,” Elphick says. “But in terms of actually spending money to do anything, we haven’t witnessed much.”

Experts like Shriver and Elphick contend that the extended timeline lends further precariousness to the sparrow’s situation, pointing out that the species is classified as endangered by the IUCN Red List (a nominal label only). “There won’t be any new information by 2023,” says Shriver, who recently co-authored a paper on how nest predators are wiping out New Jersey's largest Saltmarsh Sparrow population. “We will have just lost more birds.” He thinks the agency is trying to punt the verdict to an administration that will be less hostile to expanding the endangered species list.

The four-year window also has other limitations. For one, Elphick says, it doesn’t give USFWS enough time to weigh outcomes from field testing and pilot projects. “Cutting down trees to see if marshes will migrate inland, raising entire nesting sites—you don’t collect immediate results,” he explains. “Maybe we can wait another decade for that insight, but Saltmarsh Sparrows could be extinct in a decade and a half.”

With so many uncertainties in the pending proposals and plans, the Endangered Species Act, in many scientists’ opinions, is still the clearest answer for the bird’s myriad problems. “While I have confidence in the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, the Saltmarsh Sparrow needs a broader, concerted conservation effort,” says Walker Golder, Audubon’s Atlantic Flyway program director. He notes that a listing will lead to more wherewithal and attention for restoration; without it, conservationists don't have the power to respond quickly to threats such as sea level rise, predation, and habitat loss.

Like in New York City, for example. In 2015 birders discovered that one of the few Saltmarsh Sparrow nesting spots in the area had been flattened by a contractor hired by the parks department. The landscape never was replanted, and the breeding population never returned. “An endangered-species status would protect these kinds of saltmarshes,” Alison Kocek, an ornithologist who was banding the inhabitants at the site, said at the time. “If we lose another one, we don’t know what will happen.”

Weldon agrees that every last stronghold is valuable. “We need to work very fast. Even if we don’t have the time, we’re going to try and throw everything we can at [the Saltmarsh Sparrow’s decline],” she says. Elphick and his colleagues are mobilizing, too, in spite of the USFWS setback: They’re running a species-wide survey in 2021 to learn just how many individuals are left between Florida and Maine.

And if the sparrow is past redemption—what then? “If we’re aren’t successful in saving the species, our efforts will still be important for other tidal marsh birds,” Weldon says. But to know that a law that could prevent that outcome is just waiting in the wings will continue to be a source of frustration for researchers over these next four years.

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A dozen third-graders crowded around the microphone in Oakland’s imposing City Hall this past Tuesday, waving paper-bag puppets and hand-drawn posters of Black-crowned Night-Herons. After one student spoke on behalf of the group, a city councilman asked if the others agreed the night-heron should become the official city bird of Oakland.

“Woo hoo!” the kids yelled, sounding almost as loud—almost—as a city tree filled with dozens of these noisy colonial nesters.

The vote to make the night-heron the city’s first official bird brought a successful conclusion to a two-year campaign by heron-loving third-graders at the local Park Day School. The kids’ advocacy for the dramatic black-and-white birds began when they learned about Golden Gate Audubon Society’s efforts to save the lives of Oakland’s night-heron population from a relatively new  threat.

“The babies have been falling out of (downtown) trees, and we wanted to help them not fall onto the concrete,” says Chase Taylor, 9, a Park Day School third-grader attending the big vote.

Oakland is home to the largest Black-crowned Night-Heron rookery in the Bay Area. The wading birds traditionally nested alongside San Francisco Bay and Oakland’s historic Lake Merritt, which was designated in 1870 as the first official wildlife refuge in the country. But in recent decades, driven by urban development, they shifted their rookeries into thick ficus trees on busy downtown streets.

With their bright red eyes and striking plumage, the night-herons are easy for city dwellers to recognize. They delight downtown residents and office workers, especially during springtime nesting season when hundreds of the birds can be seen and heard squawking from the trees above. (Drivers parked underneath the trees notice the birds for less delightful reasons.)

Problems arise, though, when unfledged young fall from their nests. With no cushioning understory, many break bones in the fall or risk death from exposure and traffic.

Golden Gate Audubon became aware of the herons’ plight in 2015, after tree trimmers destroyed a number of active nests, leaving baby birds on the sidewalk. The following spring, Audubon formed a partnership with the Oakland Zoo and International Bird Rescue to retrieve fallen young, treat their injuries, and rehabilitate them for eventual release into suitable habitat. In 2017, the partnership recovered and treated 63 young birds—both night-herons and Snowy Egrets, which also nest in the downtown trees.

Black-crowned Night-Herons, like this juvenile, nest in rookeries in downtown Oakland, where a fall to the sidewalk can be deadly. Photo: Lee Aurich

At Park Day, third-graders were already studying birds as part of their science curriculum when they learned about Audubon’s rescue program for the baby herons, which “look like dinosaurs,” says third-grader and vote attendee Jackson Pezanoski Markatos, 9. The school invited Golden Gate Audubon Executive Director Cindy Margulis to speak with students about the night-herons’ plight.

“We asked the kids, ‘What can we do to help?’” says third-grade teacher Devin Homme. "They came up with ideas like, ‘What if it became a famous bird in Oakland?’ and “What if we talked to the government?’”

Soon after, the students launched an online petition to name the Black-crowned Night-Heron as the official city bird. They filmed a video about it and met with City Councilman Dan Kalb. “I’d heard of the bird before but didn’t know it had special significance to Oakland,” Kalb recalls. “I asked them, ‘Do other cities have official birds?’ It turns out a lot of them do.”

Park Day third-grader Vivian Green, 9, speaks before Oakland City Council to ask them to confirm the Black-Crowned Night-Heron as the new city bird; Cindy Margulis, executive director of Golden Gate Audubon, addresses the council. She has been working on this campaign with Park Day third graders for the past two years. Photos: Alison Yin

Finally, this week, the designation of an Oakland City Bird finally came to a City Council vote. The Park Day third-graders and their parents were joined at the microphone by Audubon members, representatives of the Oakland Zoo and International Bird Rescue, and even the developers funding the heron relocation effort.

The resolution passed unanimously. Children and adults cheered. Hand-puppets waved.

 “The kids got a good lesson in politics—that things don’t happen right away,” says Homme, who attended the council meeting with his students. “The hardest part was teaching them not to expect instant gratification.”

Students from Park Day School arrange art of the Black-Crowned Night-Heron around the official resolution that confirms it as the new city bird at City Hall in Oakland, Calif. Photo: Alison Yin

Indeed, the Tuesday night meeting was third-grader Vivian Green’s third trip to lobby City Hall on behalf of the night-herons.  

“I’m really happy because this has been going on for two years, since the fifth-graders were in third grade,” said Vivian, 9, after the vote. “I bet if the Black-crowned Night-Heron could speak, it would definitely say thank you.”

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In early April of last year, Gloucester, Massachusetts, resident Kim Smith discovered three Piping Plovers had arrived, exhausted, on the city’s Good Harbor Beach. They foraged in the wind and lingering snow, and a pair began courting, the male digging nest scrapes in the sand for his mate’s approval. Piping Plovers typically nest in the sand sheltered by dunes, but for these two, a home on the beach was not to be.

Harassed again and again by loose dogs running on the busy stretch of shore, the pair gave up and fled to the nearby 950-car parking lot. The male dug a scrape in the gravel while the female sat nearby, camouflaged on a white line delineating a parking space. By the middle of May, she’d laid four eggs.

No one knew whether the eggs would even hatch, given this inauspicious start. On a coast where human disturbance and predation are pervasive, Good Harbor hosted a pair of nesting plovers in 2016 and again in 2017. But as Smith and others dedicated to protecting the plovers saw, only one chick survived long enough to learn to fly and begin migrating to its wintering grounds—possibly as far as the Bahamas, 1,200 miles away.

By 2018 the team working to safeguard Good Harbor’s plovers included people generously giving their time to monitor the birds and the crew from the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW), who steered huge beach raking machinery clear of them. Smith, a photographer and filmmaker, had inspired much of the effort. While not everyone can be on the beach every day, her images, videos, and blog offered the entire city an up-close portrait of the birds’ daily lives.

The parking lot nest added a new twist—and yet another challenge for the birds to overcome.

Atlantic coast Piping Plovers were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. Thirty years of vigilance brought them back from the edge of extinction, their populations rebounding from fewer than 800 breeding pairs to what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimates to be about 1,900 in 2017. In Massachusetts, breeding pairs soared from 139 to 650.

These population increases are promising, but the birds’ future isn’t yet secure. “Human disturbance, sea level rise, habitat loss, and a superabundance of predators are eroding Piping Plover recruitment and threaten the survival of adults,” says Walker Golder, director of Atlantic Flyway Coastal Strategy for the National Audubon Society. “The recovery is still on the edge.”

From left: A sign alerts beachgoers to the presence of Piping Plovers; adults on the sand before they nested in the parking lot. Photos: Kim Smith

The species’ recovery depends on places like Good Harbor Beach. In New England, Massachusetts hosts three-quarters of the region’s breeding Piping Plovers, and of those breeding in the state, 25 percent nest on beaches that have three or fewer pairs. Gloucester’s day-by-day victories and defeats lay out, in stark relief, the nitty gritty of what it really takes to keep birds safe on an urban beach.

O

ut in the parking lot that May, people began mobilizing to protect the nesting birds. Dave Rimmer, stewardship director at Essex County’s Greenbelt, a local land trust, placed a wire cage over the nest to ward off gulls, foxes, coyotes, dogs, and other predators, and the DPW blocked off 30 parking spaces with sawhorses to keep cars at bay. A Boston television crew filmed while volunteers kept watch as the plovers took turns incubating the eggs, the other roosting nearby or flying off to feed. Late in the afternoon on Friday, June 8, the first chick hatched. By Saturday morning there were four. A wide expanse of hot, unshaded pavement separated them from the beach, where soft sand, wrack, and dune grass offer cover from predators and wet, fertile tidal flats supply abundant food.

The DPW, a biologist from the state wildlife agency, and the plover patrol volunteers convened to provide the chicks safe passage to the sand. As they began their trek, the DPW cordoned off more of the lot. Volunteer Heather Hall spent a tense day observing as the chicks left the nest in fits and starts, venturing out and then retreating, then advancing and retreating again. She saw them, exhausted by the heat, “plopping down in mid-stride, and falling asleep.” The family spent the night in the lot, but by the next afternoon, they finally made the crossing, disappearing into the dunes, then spilling onto the beach in the same area where the parents had been courting earlier. Everyone was jubilant.

A one-day-old chick in the parking lot. Photo: Kim Smith

For Piping Plovers, reproductive success is measured by whether the chicks live long enough to fly, usually in 25 to 35 days. The next few weeks on the beach would be critical. Scientists studying survival of chicks on barrier beaches in New York found that 82 percent successfully fledge on uncrowded beaches, versus only 19 percent on heavily-used ones.

Be a Coastal Steward for Nesting Shorebirds
  • Keep your group, vehicle, and pets a respectful distance—and encourage others to do the same. Be aware of rules, signage and fencing, and always clean up trash.
  • Volunteer for a local coastal stewardship program or connect with a an Audubon chapter.
  • See a need for better stewardship on your beach? Download Audubon’s toolkit, a guide to engaging in advocacy, organizing volunteers, and being proactive in your community.

Out on the beach, Rimmer had roped off the bird’s roosting area and added signs warning people away, but as the days warmed, crowds pressed chairs, towels, and coolers up against the ropes, their umbrellas, soccer balls, loose plastic bags, and food containers blowing inside. While many respected the protected area, others, ignoring the signs, jumped the ropes. Hordes of gulls, drawn to food and garbage strewn in the sand, snatched donuts and sandwiches, broke open bags of chips, and stalked the chicks, whose parents frantically feigned broken wings to distract the gulls. Early in the morning before the lifeguards arrived, and late afternoon when they left, dogs ran on the sand—despite a seasonal ban beginning on May 1—and the plovers’ roost filled with their tracks.

Amid the throng of visitors, the corps of some 25 volunteers took shifts between dawn and dusk to protect the plovers. I joined them. We kept track of the chicks, camouflaged by their gray, black, and beige plumage. We answered question after question from curious beachgoers as the baby birds scurried across the sand, ran to rest beneath their parents, or, after the adults “piped” out a warning of a dangerously close gull, nose-dived into the seaweed. We shared our binoculars as people began falling in love with the baby birds. When the tide ebbed and the chicks dashed to feed on the wet sand, we formed a protective corridor to ease them through the gauntlet of people, balls, and dogs.

The chicks that hatched in the parking lot made it to the beach, where they would face still more threats. Photo: Kim Smith

Good Harbor’s baby Piping Plovers didn’t make it. On day three, a volunteer arrived on the beach just after dawn to find one chick missing.  Later that day, a low-flying gull snatched another. Just a few days later, a crow took the third. At the end of June, the last chick, hunkered down in the sand with its parents as night fell, was gone by the morning. Barely two and a half weeks old, it was just learning to fly. With heavy hearts we broke the news to beachgoers as that day and the next, and the next, the lone father stood in the sand, still calling for his family.

M

any things went right on Good Harbor Beach during the summer of 2018—and many people worked together to ease the birds’ way—but with no chicks surviving, there was more to do.

Dogs are a big part of the problem. “Disturbance by humans and dogs is a continuing widespread and severe threat,” finds the FWS, creating what Rutgers University conservation biologist Brooke Maslo calls a “landscape of fear” for the birds. As a result, adult Piping Plovers, the FWS cautions, “may leave their eggs, stop feeding, and waste precious time and energy on distraction displays.” On a beach in Santa Barbara, California, dogs disturbing birds forced more than 70 percent to fly away. And scientists studying shorebird disturbance on five New Jersey beaches found that dogs were the “prime” factor. Even if dogs don’t chase birds, they might accidentally crush an egg or chick. Meanwhile, chicks, if frightened, spend less time on intertidal flats where food is best, less time foraging—as much as 50 percent less—and they eat more slowly. Consequently, they grow more slowly and fewer survive.

Crows on Good Harbor Beach pose another danger to Piping Plover chicks. Photo: Kim Smith

Leash laws aren’t always the answer: When they aren’t enforced, studies on Nebraska’s shorebird beaches show compliance is low. Many owners don’t realize plovers react as if all dogs are predators—even their most well-behaved, small pets.

Maslo’s research in New Jersey suggests one reason why Good Harbor Beach wasn’t yet safe enough for plovers, despite Gloucester’s progress. Suitable beach nesting habitat, she finds, more than doubles when managers install fencing proactively, before the birds arrive, refrain from raking the area with large machinery, and prohibit dogs from the beach. Waiting to restrict access until the birds begin nesting, she concludes, doesn’t work.

After the last chick on Good Harbor Beach disappeared, Gloucester began preparing for this year’s nesting season. Its unpaid Animal Advisory Committee had spent many hours on the beach observing the problems facing the plovers, and many more researching solutions. Despite opposition from local dog owners, the committee recommended that the city add one month to its seasonal dog prohibition on Good Harbor Beach—banning dogs beginning on April 1 (instead of May 1)—and increase fines for violating the dog ordinance from $50 to $300.

In February, before a packed auditorium, the city council unanimously passed these changes—a pivotal step forward. With a solid legal foundation in place, the city could now focus on critical elements of consistent enforcement, public outreach, and education.

The father looks after an eight-day-old chick. Photo: Kim Smith

As soon as the Piping Plovers returned this year, at the end of March, Rimmer installed fencing and signage alerting people to the plovers, the DPW posted the new dog ordinance, and Massachusetts Audubon came to speak about plover ecology. Smith continued to blog and photograph, and volunteers again took to the beach.

Still, as the weather warmed, unleashed dogs once again forced the birds to the parking lot.  This time, the city immediately stepped up enforcement: dog officers walked the beach and issued tickets. The number of dogs on Good Harbor Beach dramatically declined, the plovers returned, and by May 5, to everyone’s joy and relief, they were incubating four eggs in the sand.

Gloucester took monumental steps to protect Good Harbor’s plovers this year, and Smith now feels hopeful for the future of “this surprisingly tough, resilient, and beautiful” shorebird. “It takes time and patience to effect change" she says, "and we have come a very long way in four years.”

Now, more than ever, there’s a groundswell of support in Gloucester to share its shore, with both plovers and people. Perhaps this year, with a little luck, and rigorous enforcement of the litter ordinance, a few chicks will thrive, fatten up at sea edge, test their growing wings, and as summer peaks, lift off to begin their fall migration.

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In early April of last year, Gloucester, Massachusetts, resident Kim Smith discovered three Piping Plovers had arrived, exhausted, on the city’s Good Harbor Beach. They foraged in the wind and lingering snow, and a pair began courting, the male digging nest scrapes in the sand for his mate’s approval. Piping Plovers typically nest in the sand sheltered by dunes, but for these two, a home on the beach was not to be.

Harassed again and again by loose dogs running on the busy stretch of shore, the pair gave up and fled to the nearby 950-car parking lot. The male dug a scrape in the gravel while the female sat nearby, camouflaged on a white line delineating a parking space. By the middle of May, she’d laid four eggs.

No one knew whether the eggs would even hatch, given this inauspicious start. On a coast where human disturbance and predation are pervasive, Good Harbor hosted a pair of nesting plovers in 2016 and again in 2017. But as Smith and others dedicated to protecting the plovers saw, only one chick survived long enough to learn to fly and begin migrating to its wintering grounds—possibly as far as the Bahamas, 1,200 miles away.

By 2018 the team working to safeguard Good Harbor’s plovers included people generously giving their time to monitor the birds and the crew from the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW), who steered huge beach raking machinery clear of them. Smith, a photographer and filmmaker, had inspired much of the effort. While not everyone can be on the beach every day, her images, videos, and blog offered the entire city an up-close portrait of the birds’ daily lives.

The parking lot nest added a new twist—and yet another challenge for the birds to overcome.

Atlantic coast Piping Plovers were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. Thirty years of vigilance brought them back from the edge of extinction, their populations rebounding from fewer than 800 breeding pairs to what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimates to be about 1,900 in 2017. In Massachusetts, breeding pairs soared from 139 to 650.

These population increases are promising, but the birds’ future isn’t yet secure. “Human disturbance, sea level rise, habitat loss, and a superabundance of predators are eroding Piping Plover recruitment and threaten the survival of adults,” says Walker Golder, director of Atlantic Flyway Coastal Strategy for the National Audubon Society. “The recovery is still on the edge.”

From left: A sign alerts beachgoers to the presence of Piping Plovers; adults on the sand before they nested in the parking lot. Photos: Kim Smith

The species’ recovery depends on places like Good Harbor Beach. In New England, Massachusetts hosts three-quarters of the region’s breeding Piping Plovers, and of those breeding in the state, 25 percent nest on beaches that have three or fewer pairs. Gloucester’s day-by-day victories and defeats lay out, in stark relief, the nitty gritty of what it really takes to keep birds safe on an urban beach.

O

ut in the parking lot that May, people began mobilizing to protect the nesting birds. Dave Rimmer, stewardship director at Essex County’s Greenbelt, a local land trust, placed a wire cage over the nest to ward off gulls, foxes, coyotes, dogs, and other predators, and the DPW blocked off 30 parking spaces with sawhorses to keep cars at bay. A Boston television crew filmed while volunteers kept watch as the plovers took turns incubating the eggs, the other roosting nearby or flying off to feed. Late in the afternoon on Friday, June 8, the first chick hatched. By Saturday morning there were four. A wide expanse of hot, unshaded pavement separated them from the beach, where soft sand, wrack, and dune grass offer cover from predators and wet, fertile tidal flats supply abundant food.

The DPW, a biologist from the state wildlife agency, and the plover patrol volunteers convened to provide the chicks safe passage to the sand. As they began their trek, the DPW cordoned off more of the lot. Volunteer Heather Hall spent a tense day observing as the chicks left the nest in fits and starts, venturing out and then retreating, then advancing and retreating again. She saw them, exhausted by the heat, “plopping down in mid-stride, and falling asleep.” The family spent the night in the lot, but by the next afternoon, they finally made the crossing, disappearing into the dunes, then spilling onto the beach in the same area where the parents had been courting earlier. Everyone was jubilant.

A one-day-old chick in the parking lot. Photo: Kim Smith

For Piping Plovers, reproductive success is measured by whether the chicks live long enough to fly, usually in 25 to 35 days. The next few weeks on the beach would be critical. Scientists studying survival of chicks on barrier beaches in New York found that 82 percent successfully fledge on uncrowded beaches, versus only 19 percent on heavily-used ones.

Be a Coastal Steward for Nesting Shorebirds
  • Keep your group, vehicle, and pets a respectful distance—and encourage others to do the same. Be aware of rules, signage and fencing, and always clean up trash.
  • Volunteer for a local coastal stewardship program or connect with a an Audubon chapter.
  • See a need for better stewardship on your beach? Download Audubon’s toolkit, a guide to engaging in advocacy, organizing volunteers, and being proactive in your community.

Out on the beach, Rimmer had roped off the bird’s roosting area and added signs warning people away, but as the days warmed, crowds pressed chairs, towels, and coolers up against the ropes, their umbrellas, soccer balls, loose plastic bags, and food containers blowing inside. While many respected the protected area, others, ignoring the signs, jumped the ropes. Hordes of gulls, drawn to food and garbage strewn in the sand, snatched donuts and sandwiches, broke open bags of chips, and stalked the chicks, whose parents frantically feigned broken wings to distract the gulls. Early in the morning before the lifeguards arrived, and late afternoon when they left, dogs ran on the sand—despite a seasonal ban beginning on May 1—and the plovers’ roost filled with their tracks.

Amid the throng of visitors, the corps of some 25 volunteers took shifts between dawn and dusk to protect the plovers. I joined them. We kept track of the chicks, camouflaged by their gray, black, and beige plumage. We answered question after question from curious beachgoers as the baby birds scurried across the sand, ran to rest beneath their parents, or, after the adults “piped” out a warning of a dangerously close gull, nose-dived into the seaweed. We shared our binoculars as people began falling in love with the baby birds. When the tide ebbed and the chicks dashed to feed on the wet sand, we formed a protective corridor to ease them through the gauntlet of people, balls, and dogs.

The chicks that hatched in the parking lot made it to the beach, where they would face still more threats. Photo: Kim Smith

Good Harbor’s baby Piping Plovers didn’t make it. On day three, a volunteer arrived on the beach just after dawn to find one chick missing.  Later that day, a low-flying gull snatched another. Just a few days later, a crow took the third. At the end of June, the last chick, hunkered down in the sand with its parents as night fell, was gone by the morning. Barely two and a half weeks old, it was just learning to fly. With heavy hearts we broke the news to beachgoers as that day and the next, and the next, the lone father stood in the sand, still calling for his family.

M

any things went right on Good Harbor Beach during the summer of 2018—and many people worked together to ease the birds’ way—but with no chicks surviving, there was more to do.

Dogs are a big part of the problem. “Disturbance by humans and dogs is a continuing widespread and severe threat,” finds the FWS, creating what Rutgers University conservation biologist Brooke Maslo calls a “landscape of fear” for the birds. As a result, adult Piping Plovers, the FWS cautions, “may leave their eggs, stop feeding, and waste precious time and energy on distraction displays.” On a beach in Santa Barbara, California, dogs disturbing birds forced more than 70 percent to fly away. And scientists studying shorebird disturbance on five New Jersey beaches found that dogs were the “prime” factor. Even if dogs don’t chase birds, they might accidentally crush an egg or chick. Meanwhile, chicks, if frightened, spend less time on intertidal flats where food is best, less time foraging—as much as 50 percent less—and they eat more slowly. Consequently, they grow more slowly and fewer survive.

Crows on Good Harbor Beach pose another danger to Piping Plover chicks. Photo: Kim Smith

Leash laws aren’t always the answer: When they aren’t enforced, studies on Nebraska’s shorebird beaches show compliance is low. Many owners don’t realize plovers react as if all dogs are predators—even their most well-behaved, small pets.

Maslo’s research in New Jersey suggests one reason why Good Harbor Beach wasn’t yet safe enough for plovers, despite Gloucester’s progress. Suitable beach nesting habitat, she finds, more than doubles when managers install fencing proactively, before the birds arrive, refrain from raking the area with large machinery, and prohibit dogs from the beach. Waiting to restrict access until the birds begin nesting, she concludes, doesn’t work.

After the last chick on Good Harbor Beach disappeared, Gloucester began preparing for this year’s nesting season. Its unpaid Animal Advisory Committee had spent many hours on the beach observing the problems facing the plovers, and many more researching solutions. Despite opposition from local dog owners, the committee recommended that the city add one month to its seasonal dog prohibition on Good Harbor Beach—banning dogs beginning on April 1 (instead of May 1)—and increase fines for violating the dog ordinance from $50 to $300.

In February, before a packed auditorium, the city council unanimously passed these changes—a pivotal step forward. With a solid legal foundation in place, the city could now focus on critical elements of consistent enforcement, public outreach, and education.

The father looks after an eight-day-old chick. Photo: Kim Smith

As soon as the Piping Plovers returned this year, at the end of March, Rimmer installed fencing and signage alerting people to the plovers, the DPW posted the new dog ordinance, and Massachusetts Audubon came to speak about plover ecology. Smith continued to blog and photograph, and volunteers again took to the beach.

Still, as the weather warmed, unleashed dogs once again forced the birds to the parking lot.  This time, the city immediately stepped up enforcement: dog officers walked the beach and issued tickets. The number of dogs on Good Harbor Beach dramatically declined, the plovers returned, and by May 5, to everyone’s joy and relief, they were incubating four eggs in the sand.

Gloucester took monumental steps to protect Good Harbor’s plovers this year, and Smith now feels hopeful for the future of “this surprisingly tough, resilient, and beautiful” shorebird. “It takes time and patience to effect change" she says, "and we have come a very long way in four years.”

Now, more than ever, there’s a groundswell of support in Gloucester to share its shore, with both plovers and people. Perhaps this year, with a little luck, and rigorous enforcement of the litter ordinance, a few chicks will thrive, fatten up at sea edge, test their growing wings, and as summer peaks, lift off to begin their fall migration.

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Washington, DC – “We can produce clean energy from wind and sun, but our challenge is storage technology that makes this emissions-free energy available around the clock,” said Renee Stone, Audubon’s Vice President for Climate. “Renewable energy sources are maturing fast and this legislation will help them grow as a share of the grid. Our investment in storage technology will speed up the energy revolution so that birds and people can breathe easier.”

The Better Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Act was introduced yesterday in the Senate by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Tina Smith (D-MN), Chris Coons (D-DE), Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Angus King (I-ME), and today in the House by Representatives by Bill Foster (D-IL), Sean Casten (D-IL), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH). The bipartisan legislation would support an energy storage research and development program with the directive to set cost targets and strategic goals for storage innovation, and up to five large-scale storage demonstration projects. These grid-scale projects can provide real-world information about reliability, safety, costs, risks, challenges and other factors that can be applied by future developers, investors, regulators and others. It is modeled after the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, which successfully brought down the cost of solar energy by 75% in less than five years. This public investment will accelerate the field of energy storage technology to ultimately help suppliers deliver electricity as demand and supply fluctuate, a key step towards integrating renewable energy sources like wind and solar into the grid.

Audubon supports this clean energy legislation because climate change is the greatest threat that birds face. Among other things, it is shrinking range, diminishing food and water sources, increasing competition and introducing new predators. Audubon’s 2014 Birds and Climate Change Report shows that more than half of the bird species in North America could lose at least half of their current ranges by 2080 due to rising temperatures.

Audubon supports common-sense, bipartisan solutions that reduce carbon emissions at the speed and scale necessary to protect birds and the places they need. As part of this suite of solutions, Audubon supported the BEST Act in the last Congress, and hopes for passage of the legislation as a standalone bill or as part of a larger legislative package during this Congress. 

Read more about Audubon’s work on climate mitigation and adaptation: https://www.audubon.org/conservation/climate-initiative

Media Contact: Anne Singer, asinger@audubon.org, 202-271-4679

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. Audubon works throughout the Americas using, science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. State programs, nature centers, chapters, and partners give Audubon an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire, and unite diverse communities in conservation action. A nonprofit conservation organization since 1905, Audubon believes in a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Learn more how to help at www.audubon.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @audubonsociety.

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A year ago, Everglades scientists and environmentalists were ecstatic about what looked like a blockbuster breeding season for South Florida’s wading birds. Turns out, it was far better than those early estimates indicated. New data show that the region hosted its biggest colonies of waders in more than 80 years, offering a flashback to the historical Everglades and a glimpse of how the ecosystem again could look once restored.

All told, wading birds built 138,834 nests throughout South Florida, with 122,571 of them in the Everglades, according to an annual report released last week by the South Florida Water Management District. That’s about three and a half times the average for the past 10 years, making it the strongest nesting season since before the region’s hydrology was transformed with engineering projects that made development possible but also contributed to steep declines in wading bird numbers.

When Audubon spoke last spring with Mark Cook, an avian ecologist and lead author of the report, he estimated from helicopter surveys that one massive colony contained around 18,000 White Ibis nests. But after a thorough count using drone photography, Cook now says the birds built more than 56,000 nests at that site alone, making it by far the region’s largest wading bird colony since the 1930s. There were more than 100,000 White Ibis nests throughout South Florida, more than five times the average count over the past 10 years. “That’s unbelievable,” Cook says. “They’re kind of off the charts.”

White Ibises were by far the most numerous wading birds last year, but Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Wood Storks also flourished, with each species building more than twice its 10-year average number of nests during the nesting period that ran from December 2017 to July of 2018.

Because their nesting success is tied closely to the way water moves through the Everglades, scientists look to wading birds as indicators of the ecosystem’s health and the impact of the massive effort to restore its historic hydrology. Last year’s breeding explosion doesn’t mean all is well with the system, however. It was basically a fluke: An extremely rainy 2017 filled wetlands and fueled production of small fish and crayfish. Then, a dry period gradually drew down the water level, stranding fish in crowded pools, where they offered a smorgasbord for waders and their nestlings. Those lucky conditions mimicked pre-settlement Everglades hydrology, and offered a glimpse of what restoring that historic water flow could yield.

The report provides “a bit of hope for those of us who have read those historical accounts of clouds of wading birds in the Everglades so big that they blocked out the sun,” says Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida, which provides some of the data used in the report. “Having never seen it, you start to think, maybe it’s apocryphal. Maybe it’s like my dad with his fishing stories. But last summer’s supercolonies proved that it was not an exaggeration."

Wood Storks in the Everglades. Photo: Mac Stone

Not all of the numbers in the report are encouraging, however. Little Blue Heron nesting was in line with average numbers over the past decade, but in this case, average is cause for concern. Those birds and other small herons—including Snowy Egrets and Tricolored Herons, which each showed moderate improvements over the 10-year average—“have been declining like crazy over the past 10 or 15 years,” Cook says. “We’re not entirely sure why.” 

The good news also wasn’t uniform across the region. While the federally threatened Wood Stork had a banner year overall, the colony in Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary remained relatively small at 328 nests. It could be much worse; in 8 of the past 10 years, there have been no stork nests there at all. And unlike many recent years in which they've begun nesting in February—which is dangerously late, since prey fish become unavailable by the time their chicks fledge—the birds last year built their nests in early December, in keeping with their historical patterns. Still, last year’s colony was nothing compared to the 7,000 nests built there annually in the 1960s. Wraithmell says that drainage canals and significant consumption for drinking water and agriculture dried up the state’s southwest corner, where Corkscrew is located, more quickly than the central and southern Everglades, where the breeding bonanza was biggest.

Unfortunately, despite the phenomenal success of last year, 2019 productivity is already shaping up to be a letdown, Cook says. Last year’s rainy season wasn’t as severe as in 2017, so wetlands didn’t get a strong recharge of water and prey. Then, heavy rains arrived this past January, when in an ideal breeding year the wetlands would be slowly drawing down. Still, even the undisturbed Everglades had good years and bad years, and last year’s explosion showed that extremely good years can still happen when water conditions are right.

That proof of South Florida's potential to support supercolonies has Wraithmell hopeful about the future for wading birds and the ecosystem they represent. Ron DeSantis, the state’s new Republican governor, has made environmental protection a priority, with a focus on accelerating Everglades restoration. And earlier this month, President Donald Trump updated his 2020 budget plan and called on Congress to provide $200 million for Everglades restoration, after initially proposing $63 million. Those funds would support projects that increase the flow of water south through the system and replenish the wetlands that waders need. If these long-legged birds herald what the Everglades once were and can be again, it seems their message is beginning to hit home.

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Audubon by National Audubon Society - 5d ago

Painted: 4/25/2019

Climate Threat: Often found mingling with the more opportunistic Mallard, the American Black Duck is a staple in Eastern marshes and winter woods. The species is already struggling from decades of hunting and habitat conversion; now climate change is adding another wrinkle to its survival. Audubon's models predict that a bulk of its future suitable range will occur in Western Canada and Alaska—an area of the continent that it so far hasn't expanded to. Overall, only 37 percent of its range is considered stable.

About the Artist: Peter Daverington is a painter and musician from Melbourne, Australia, currently living and working in Beacon, New York. He completed an MFA at the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne and has held 15 solo exhibitions since 2004. Daverington has been commissioned to paint public murals in Argentina, Australia, China, Egypt, Germany, Guatemala, and Turkey. Follow him on Instagram.

Artist Peter Daverington. Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

The Artist on the Mural: “I chose the American Black Duck because its natural habitat is next to the mural location on New York City's East River. These are true New Yorker ducks: They're street wise; they're handsome; and the heart of their range is in the Northeast.”

Come Visit: 

For best viewing across the water, visit the ferry terminal at East 90th Street, off the FDR Drive, in Manhattan, New York. See a map here.

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This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide. 

This is BirdNote!

At this time of year, a very young male Bewick’s Wren is beginning to learn how to sing. Like a human baby, he’ll babble while he experiments with sounds and learns how to organize phrases.

The young Bewick’s Wren is listening to the song of his father who sings a crisp well-defined song, separated by pauses.

Now let’s compare:  Here’s the song of our young Bewick’s Wren.

It’s fuzzy, unfocused, a little rambling.

Here’s the adult male again. 

It’s fully developed and unique to that male.

Each adult male Bewick’s Wren has his own set of songs. A young wren grows up learning his father’s songs.  But when it matures and moves to its own new territory, it will leave behind the song of its father to create a song that sounds more like its new neighbors.

BirdNote would like to thank Donald Kroodsma, avian communication expert, for his research on the Bewick’s Wren. You’ll find a link to his work at birdnote.org.

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Written by Chris Peterson

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

Song of Bewick’s Wren and human baby (his daughter) recorded by Donald Kroodsma and found on the CD of Donald Kroodsma’s, The Singing Life of Birds: the Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2005  1) Track 11,  2) Track 9, and 3) Track 10.

Final song of adult Bewick’s Wren (103223) provided by Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, recorded by M.D. Medler.

© 2012 Tune In to Nature.org     May 2017/2019  Narrator: Mary McCann
ID#     BEWR-02-2012-05-01    

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