More piping plovers have nested in New Jersey this year than last year, conservation experts say.

This past summer, 114 pairs nested along the Jersey coastline, according to David Wheeler, executive drector of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation in New Jersey. That's up fro 98 the year before.

While that's a good sign, Wheeler said it's a time for cautious optimism. The piping plover nesting population has jumped up and down from year to year recently. The species is still not back to the long-term average of 117 pairs, and is well below the 144 pairs seen in 2003, according to the report.

Besides the number of nesting pairs, he said the foundation also measures the success rate of the fledglings — when a young piping plover can leave the nest and become an adult.

With piping plovers, there's a high mortality rate among chicks, so when they're  able to reach the fledging milestone, it's a big deal, Wheeler said.

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Wheeler said plovers are are spreading out beyond their most commonplace nesting areas, looking for spots where they feel as safe as possible from beachgoers, pets and predators. Those predators include red foxes, raccoons, crows and peregrine falcons.

"So in the past year, we've seen them branch out a little bit from some of their primary nesting sites, which have tended to be in recent years in federal beach areas. That would include places like Sandy Hook or the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in the Brigantine area," he said.

Wheeler warns that piping plovers nest in a way where they blend right in to their surroundings. So often, if a beachgoer did not know there was a nest there, it would be easy walk right over it the nest and potentially harm or kill the plover or its eggs without even realizing it.

Wheeler said it's important to let people know that there is a nesting bird present, and that it's an endangered species. He  said biologists from the Conserve Wildlife Foundation will often go out, check on the plover pairs and put up temporary fencing around these nesting areas.

"Unfortunately this group of birds, plovers, oyster catchers and skimmers, as they nest on the beach, they've lost a lot the habitat that they have depended on for nesting for ages," Wheeler said. But at the same time, they've been showing a certain kind of resilience that the CWF would like to see keep thriving.

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