A least tern bird with a chick on beach sand.
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

Cape May Piping Plover and Least Tern Protection

Along the Jersey Shore, endangered shorebirds are struggling due to lack of habitat combined, natural predators and increased flooding from coastal storms. At the South Cape May Meadows Preserve, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is using innovative science and a little creativity to improve survival odds for these charismatic birds.

Sandy beach with ocean waves lapping gently on the shore in the background under blue sky.
Cape May, New Jersey Endangered shorebirds nest along the Jersey Shore’s beaches. © Shutterstock

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 Ocean. Many endangered shorebirds do virtually the same thing. At South Cape May Meadows, piping plovers, American oystercatchers 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.

Quote: Damon Noe

Beach nesting bird success or failure seems complex, but lack of suitable habitat combined with natural predators and flooding are pretty obvious challenges.

Critical Lands Manager

Beach Nesters 101

Many migratory shorebirds, like least terns and American oystercatchers, can be found nesting on sandy beaches along the New Jersey shore. Because beach-nesters nest on the ground, they are vulnerable to attacks by predators, which can decimate a colony's eggs and chicks. Providing beach nesters with safe habitat is crucial to their success.

Least tern bird sitting on a nest.
Four least tern eggs in a nest on the beach.
An adult American oystercatcher is sitting on its nest.
Two least tern chicks laying down in their nest.

Making Beaches Safer for Birds

For many years before the current techniques were used, there was no success for the beach-nesters. Every single nest had been lost to predators. In 2019, TNC piloted an innovative project to improve survival odds for these charismatic birds at two designated areas on the one-mile of protected beach this preserve protects.

Noe and his team mechanically removed vegetation, which impedes access to feeding areas and can hide predators. This provided the birds with open, flat nesting grounds, the ideal habitat for beach nesters. To further attract terns, plovers and oystercatchers, the team spread 45 tons of shell across the sand which is used by shorebirds for camouflage and nest-building. To inhibit predators in this special zone, they erected a six-foot fence that extends out a few feet along the ground to keep out even the most dedicated diggers.

Creative Tactics to Attract Shorebirds

This project added even more creative levels of enticement at both sites for the visiting shorebirds. Least tern and plover decoys, faux eggs, and even two custom-made bird call sound boxes were used in an attempt to attract beach-nesting shorebirds to the enclosed habitat.

Plover decoy on a nest.
Fake least tern eggs.
Fence on a beach.
Solar powered callbox on the beach.

“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 was a test to see not only whether the plovers would be attracted, but whether the false flock helped 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 were hoping the decoy nests would distract or deter crows from the real things,” Noe adds. While the decoy nests proved to be unsuccessful, Noe and his team saw much success with the larger fenced in exclosure.

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 250 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!”

A platform covered in sand stands on the beach.
Raised Nesting Platform The raised nesting platform sits inside the fenced in exclosure and provides least terns with elevated nesting habitat. © Lily Mullock/TNC

In recent years, increased intensity and frequency of coastal storms resulted in extreme flooding of the protected beach and nesting habitat. To address this, TNC installed a raised nesting platform within the beach exclosure in 2022. The platform idea stemmed from reports of least terns successfully nesting on rooftops in Florida.

TNC piloted this raised nesting area to determine if it could withstand the harsh weather conditions. Providing the birds with elevated nesting habitat also protects them from predators like ghost crabs. If this could be scaled efficiently and worked as planned, nest inundation and predation could be drastically minimized. The raised nesting platform will be closely monitored over the next several years.

An oystercatcher bird and three chicks stand on the sand in front of a fence.
American Oystercatcher Chicks Each year, American oystercatchers nest inside the 12-acre fenced-in beach nesting bird enclosure. The enclosure provides them with safe nesting habitat. © Mark S Garland
A piping plover bird supervises a least tern chick on the sand of the beach.
Least Tern Chick A piping plover looking after a least tern chick inside the nesting exclosure. This was a most unusual sight! © Mark S Garland
American Oystercatcher Chicks Each year, American oystercatchers nest inside the 12-acre fenced-in beach nesting bird enclosure. The enclosure provides them with safe nesting habitat. © Mark S Garland
Least Tern Chick A piping plover looking after a least tern chick inside the nesting exclosure. This was a most unusual sight! © Mark S Garland

Signs of Success

So far the innovative nesting exclosure has proven to be successful. In 2019 after several years of no fruitful nesters, TNC was happy to report seven least tern fledglings. While this number may seem small, it was a huge success for TNC and the nesting shorebirds who had gone several years with no fledges. Since the exclosure’s installation, there have been successful least tern and American oystercatcher nests every year.

In 2022, TNC staff documented the largest least tern colony the South Cape May Meadows has had in years, with over 250 birds!

Since its installation, there have been zero reports of nests inside the exclosure lost to mammalian predators, a trend that TNC hopes to continue.

Support Our Work

Help protect endangered shorebirds in New Jersey.


Not all shorebirds that nest along the New Jersey coast benefit from conservationists’ fences and decoys; it’s 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 and 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!

Three piping plover chicks on the sand.
Piping Plover Chicks Photographed in Cape May, New Jersey. © Dottie Dowling

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