Migratory shorebirds, like the least tern, can be found nesting along the New Jersey shore in the spring and summer.
Least Tern with Chick Migratory shorebirds, like the least tern, can be found nesting along the New Jersey shore in the spring and summer. © Shutterstock

Stories in New Jersey

Protecting Piping Plovers and Least Terns in Cape May

Along the Jersey Shore, endangered shorebirds are struggling due to lack of habitat combined with natural predators. At the South Cape May Meadows Preserve, TNC is using innovative science and a little creativity to improve survival odds for these charismatic birds.  

Cape May, New Jersey Endangered shorebirds nest along the Jersey Shore's beaches.

Beachgoers are a Threat for Beach-Nesting Birds

Every summer people flock to the Jersey Shore, setting up “camps” of towels and umbrellas on the sand and foraying into the waves of the Atlantic. Many endangered shorebirds do virtually the same thing! At South Cape May Meadows, piping plovers and least terns build nests, called scrapes, in depressions in the sand. Both males and females share egg incubation duties, leaving them exposed for only the briefest of moments when they trade places.

Unfortunately, even with this careful nest tending, things do not always end up well for these fragile species. 

“Beach nesting bird success or failure seems complex, but lack of suitable habitat combined with natural predators are pretty obvious challenges,” says Damon Noe, Critical Land Manager for The Nature Conservancy in New Jersey.

“For the past four years, the eggs of all beach nesting shorebirds at the Meadows have been lost to predators.”

Making Beaches Safer for Birds

TNC is trying a new and innovative project to improve survival odds for these charismatic birds at two designated areas of the preserve: on the beach and on an “island” further inland.

At the beach site, Noe and his Cape May team have mechanically removed vegetation, which impedes access to feeding areas and can hide predators, and spread 45 tons of shell, used by shorebirds for camouflage and nest-building. To inhibit predators in this special zone, they erected a five-foot fence that extends out a few feet along the ground to keep out even the most dedicated diggers.

At the second site, the team removed vegetation and put down 75 tons of shell to create a habitat “island” to give birds an additional protected place to nest or roost, that is less accessible to predators. 

Shell Island
Shell Island Using 75 tons of shell, we created a habitat “island” surrounded by water to give birds a protected place to nest or roost, that is less accessible to predators. © TNC

Creative Tactics to Attract Shorebirds

But this project has added even more creative levels of enticement at both sites for the visiting shorebirds. “We set up a number of piping plover decoys in fake nests complete with faux eggs inside a traditional exclosure made of wire,” Noe says.

“It is a test to see not only whether the plovers will be attracted, but whether the false flock helps to confuse predators.” Crows, in particular, will patiently monitor plover activity and then swoop in for a meal when the chicks leave the exclosure. “We are hoping the decoy nests will distract or deter crows from the real things,” he adds.

For least terns, which spend April to August in New Jersey and like to live in colonies, decoys enhanced with sound seem to be an irresistible lure. “We installed custom, solar-powered boxes that emit least tern and piping plover calls,” says Noe. “The sounds will run all summer, but we have already seen more than 100 least terns—an enormous colony for our beach—in the restored habitat, many of them mating and displaying nesting behaviors. There is even an American oystercatcher nesting there too!”

Piping Plover chicks on the property of the Beach Club of Cape May, Inc.
Piping Plover Chicks Photographed in Cape May, New Jersey. © Dottie Dowling

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Not all shorebirds that nest along the New Jersey coast benefit from conservationists’ fences and decoys though, so it is important that everyone do their part to help them. Take a minute to learn more about these birds and their habitats, stay away from protected areas, keep your dog leashed or pick up trash on the beach which can be mistaken by birds as food. The Jersey Shore is for all of us, endangered plovers and terns too!