The population of the endangered beach-nesting piping plover is growing in New Jersey with 137 nesting pairs found in 2021, up from 103 pairs found in 2020, according to The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

That's a 33% increase, which is unprecedented in New Jersey, said senior wildlife biologist, Todd Pover. The number of nesting pairs fluctuates year-to-year so while the conservationists are excited about 2021's numbers, the hope is to maintain that number in 2022.

The goal is to protect the piping plover which likes to nest on beaches and in New Jersey, that's challenging since our beaches are some of the busiest in the northeast, said Pover.

But in the past five years, there has been an increase in the number of chicks that are fledged, meaning they've reached the level where they can fly so they're successful. Pover believes that's contributed to the jump to some degree this year.

Where are piping plover hotspots in New Jersey?

In the past couple of decades, Sandy Hook has been the hotspot for piper plover nests as well as the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge with two units in Holgate and Little Beach. Holgate is at the south end of Long Beach Island. This year, in particular, Holgate has the largest number of piping plovers in the state, Pover said. At the Forsythe Refuge, there were 59 pairs of piping plovers found in 2021. At Holgate alone, there were 46 pairs discovered, up from 20 pairs in 2020.

Pover said Cape May used to be a popular place for piping plovers to nest. But over the last decade or so, that number has significantly dropped. As low as just three pairs remained in 2018. But in the last several years, the number has thankfully ticked higher. In 2021, 15 nesting pairs of piping plovers were found in Cape May County.

The biggest surprise in 2021 for a piping plover discovery was in Seaside Park, Pover said. "We have not in the 35 to 40 years of monitoring these birds, we've never had them there but we had two pairs that nested there this year. So that was the biggest surprise," Pover said. Each of the pairs produced two chicks each as well.

Adult piping plover (Photo Credit: Northside Jim)
Adult piping plover (Photo Credit: Northside Jim)
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Where do piping plovers like to nest?

Piping plovers like open, sparsely vegetated beaches. They are pale, thin-colored birds. The way they camouflage and hide from predators is to be out in the open, blending in with the beach, making them very hard to see.

Some of those predators include crows, foxes, and raccoons. Pover said in 2021, there was a huge coyote problem in some sites, especially at Holgate, the largest area with the most piping plovers.

Rather than being up in the dunes, the birds like to be out in the middle of the beach. Pover said the problem is that in New Jersey, the beaches are heavily recreated. It's where the people like to go. Piping plovers require undisturbed beach areas with no human activity.

Piping plover chick (Photo Credit: Sean Pajak)
Piping plover chick (Photo Credit: Sean Pajak)
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How can the public help protect the piping plover in NJ?

He said there are ways the public can help keep the piping plover population growing and flourishing for years to come. First, share the shore with the birds. Admire them from afar and enjoy them but give the birds their much-needed space.

The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey has put up fencing and signage warning people of piping plover nesting areas. So be aware of those signs.

Pover asks people to leave their dogs at home when walking on the beaches with piping plover nests. The birds see the dogs as a predator and the dog's presence can change the bird's behavior, impacting their success.

Pover said the piping plover is not going to be the cure for cancer and the wildlife system will not collapse without them. But they are listed as a state and federally endangered species. The bottom line is, people love wildlife and they want to protect wildlife.

That's what the piping plover is: wildlife that needs and warrants protection. They are part of what a healthy, natural beach system is, so when that exists, a lot of people are happy because that's a big part of their beach experience, Pover said.

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