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Shorebird Nesting in a Changing World

With the unfortunate emergence of COVID-19 during nesting season, Connecticut and other states have inadvertently put local wildlife populations at risk.

Connecticut is the summer home of many shorebirds including the Piping Plover, American Oystercatcher and multiple species of terns. These species reside on sandy beaches and make their nests in the sand between the water and dune grass, where they have access to mudflats and creeks for feeding. Our beaches are also important roosting and foraging sites for migratory shorebirds like the Semipalmated Sandpiper.
 
This March, however, with the unfortunate emergence of COVID-19, multiple states including Connecticut have inadvertently put the local wildlife populations at risk. 
 
With the order for non-essential employees to work from home, and our own organization’s decision to help keep people safe by suspending fieldwork, Audubon staff and volunteers are currently unable to steward beaches and the birds they support. 
 
This means it’s taking longer than usual to put up protective signage and string fencing around important nesting areas for vulnerable birds.
 
Combined with an uptick in foot traffic at beaches, we’re seeing humans, dogs, and even horses coming into more frequent, and closer, contact with shorebirds—potentially driving them away from nests and eventually, chicks.
 

Field Season Begins…Without People in the Field

The field season for shorebirds in Connecticut begins in March. Field technicians start the season by visiting the main onshore nesting sites from Bridgeport to Groton. Some of the sites included Long Beach (Stratford), Milford Point, Hammonasset Beach State Park, and Bluff Point State Park.
 
As April arrives, technicians visit smaller beaches that may have had a nesting pair in the past and, with the help of volunteers, start fencing nesting beaches.
 
An American Oystercatcher sits on its nest inside string fencing. Photo: Ewa Prusak/Audubon

In April and May, nests will appear, be lost, and new pairs will continue to arrive. Towards the end of May, the season will be in full swing with nests hatching, re-nesting occur when nests are lost, and the arrival of Least Terns that nest near Piping Plovers.

Although they do have nests on shore, the majority of the American Oystercatchers pairs in the state nest on off-shore islands included Cockenoe in Westport. Technicians that monitor the islands must wait till the weather warms to get out to these islands by kayak or boat.

One thing all these birds deal with is human disturbance and predation, regardless of whether they nest on local beaches, state parks, or off-shore islands. Birds can be stressed off their nest by humans getting too close. Some human disturbance can be caused by non-humans as well--unleashed dogs wandering beaches appear very similar to foxes, and trash left by beachgoers can attract skunks and opossums and lead to abandoned or predated nests. One of the big roles of staff and volunteers during the shorebird season is to mitigate these types of disturbance. 

A Field Season Inside

Since the first report of COVID-19  in Connecticut, beaches and parks across the state have seen an increase in attendance. 
 
DEEP and local papers have written to state residents encouraging them to visit lesser-known wildlife areas to ease the burden on popular sites like Bluff Point and Hammonasset Beach State Park. They remind beachgoers to maintain social distance (6ft apart) even if they are outside. This, however, is not slowing the influx of people to popular areas where they can enjoy the fresh air and escape their home confinement. 
 
That makes this season different than usual, which could be bad news for birds. Beach-nesting birds are arriving to set up nesting territories on already-crowded beaches. During a normal season, the influx of visitors is gradual, starting slow in March (when birds are arriving) and ramping up in May (when many have established nest sand are starting to raise chicks). This gives the birds a break before beach season begins to set up their home.
 
Also missing is symbolic fencing, which is typically put up before most parks open for the summer season. Symbolic fencing (the use of a few posts, string, flagging, and signage) is the main way we provide nesting birds, like Piping Plovers, with space between their nests and beachgoers. Signage includes dog rules, and presents the reason for fencing on the beach to beachgoers so they understand why they are being asked to keep a safe distance.
 
Along with Audubon technicians and state employees, we are usually joined by a large force of volunteers that monitor the beaches with us. These volunteers help set up fencing and educate the public. Volunteer monitoring has also been suspended by the state until May. However, that does not mean we cannot rely on our volunteers. Now is the time to reach out to town contacts, beachgoers, fisherman and residents all over Connecticut about the challenges our birds are suddenly facing. Conservation is a team effort, and this year the team just needs to be a little larger-and online.
 
Slowing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting our beach-nesting birds can be achieved simultaneously. We can enjoy the outdoors, and practice social distancing between people and birds—for the sake of our families and theirs. Most importantly, we can spread the word to #ShareTheShore.
 

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