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Going Strong at Goosewing Beach Preserve

This Piping Plover chick took countless steps across the sands of Goosewing Beach this past summer before finally taking flight towards the southern Atlantic coast.

When was the last time you saw an endangered species up close and personal…a Peregrine Falcon or a Gray Wolf?  It’s not always easy to come “face to face” with animals that are rare and elusive and draw an appreciation from them. Piping plovers, right here on our own beaches in Rhode Island, epitomize the plight of an endangered species, and they live out the most interesting part of their lives in our midst. As just regular ole beachgoers we have the unique opportunity to observe relatively “up-close” the fascinating aspects of their behavior and how a species of wildlife interfaces with an active human presence. Visitors to Goosewing Beach Preserve get that opportunity; all it takes is a little curiosity, patience and respect. Building that respect, among the local community, not only for Piping Plover (listed as a federally ‘threatened’ species), but for the unique ecosystem upon which it depends, has been a major commitment of The Nature Conservancy in recent years.

Under the Endangered Species Act, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is responsible for monitoring the nesting success, or failure, of Piping Plovers on our Goosewing Beach Preserve as well as other privately owned areas of nesting in Little Compton, RI, and in nearby Westport, MA. We incorporate the effort of landowners and volunteers with TNC staff in all that we do to enhance plover productivity at these sites. Public education is also a key to management of any species. The Nature Conservancy led 38 education programs during the 2013 season, partnering with local experts to introduce participants not only to Piping Plovers, but also to the many plants, fish, and insects that make up the intricate web of a beach ecosystem. Through these programs, the Conservancy reaches up to 1,000 people annually, building public support for species and habitat conservation.

Let’s face it, Piping Plovers nest in very busy, recreationally attractive, sandy beaches of the Atlantic coast. Here, they contend with many types of disturbance: development of the shoreline, beachgoers with unleashed dogs, roving 4-wheel drive vehicles, Fourth of July fireworks, litter that attracts predators, and more. The ultimate nesting success of Piping Plover along Rhode Island beaches and along the Atlantic coast from New Brunswick to North Carolina depends on the year to year dedication of thousands of individuals and the cooperation of numerous governments and organizations. And our Sakonnet area is no exception to this. As in past seasons, volunteers assisted staff with installation and removal of symbolic fencing and exclosure wire, monitored plover nests, removed litter from the beaches, and staffed the Benjamin Family Environmental Center at Goosewing Beach to help educate the public. Over the season, a whopping 1,114 volunteer hours were recorded. This year, Piping Plovers also benefited from the extra protection of off-duty police officers, who patrolled the beaches to enforce the “no dogs” policy.

So how did the plovers do in 2013? In order to have an overall sustaining population (according to the USFWS recovery plan), Piping Plovers must average 1.5 chicks fledged per pair for 5 consecutive years as measured for the entire Atlantic coast population. With that benchmark in mind, our Sakonnet area birds were successful. This year, 20 nesting pairs fledged a total of 40 chicks, for an overall average of 2 chicks per pair. As it happened, all 40 chicks were fledged from the Rhode Island beaches(15 pairs), with 3 of the 5 Westport pairs losing all of their 12 chicks to undetermined causes, and the other 2 pair having abandoned their nests.

By this time of year, in early November, the annual migration of Piping Plovers along the northern Atlantic coast is winding down, with just a few stragglers lingering on. The rest are foraging along more southerly beaches and mudflats from the Carolinas to the Bahamas. Here they contend with similar issues faced in their breeding range, and depend in large part on the concern and dedication of the people that have witnessed the plight of this shorebird, that have come “face to face” with a species struggling against the odds, have the vision to plan ahead, do the science, gather strength of community support, and implement ongoing measures that make a difference. This is a commitment that the Conservancy stands behind.

If you would like to support the Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island's ongoing efforts to manage Piping Plover at our various sites, and/or help educate the public, please visit our Volunteer page for more information, or make a donation now.

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