Saturday, July 4, 2015

Life, Death and Protecting the Endangered Piping Plover at Breezy Point; May & June, 2015

For this blog entry we will take a little side-trip over to Breezy Point, where we will examine the way in which the nests of the endangered Piping Plover are protected by park employees and local volunteers. At this time of the year, there are other species that also nest in the same area and we will meet some of them as well as their young. While there is much new life during this season, there is also the every-day demise of all sorts of creatures; this too will be seen in some of the accompanying images.
Note that this series of images were made over several visits: May 7, May 16, May 30, June 13 and June 27, 2015.

When a clutch of Piping Plover eggs are discovered, what is called an “Exclosure” is erected to protect them from various predators, be they natural or human. The Exclosure is constructed using metal wire-mesh with openings spaced in such a way as to exclude any animals much larger than an adult Piping Plover.
The mesh is unrolled, stood up, and the ends are brought together. The resulting cylinder is closed off with electrician’s plastic wire ties. The top, or “roof”, of what is essentially a four- to five-foot tall cylinder with a ten- to twelve-foot (approximate) diameter is covered by fine plastic netting. The entire construct is anchored by four lengths of steel “re-bar” (reinforcing bar), each of which is hammered into the sand about eight- or ten-inches deep. Wire-ties anchor the mesh to the re-bar, while smaller ties, similar to what seals the bag-end of a loaf of bread, secures the plastic netting for the roof.

Most of the construct is assembled away from the nest and then brought over and emplaced. The rods are hammered in, the roof is added and everything is tied-off; the edges of the roof are trimmed away. It is imperative that this final action is done as rapidly as possible in order to produce as little stress as possible for the pair of adult Piping Plovers who guard their nest.

While this last step is completed, one or both parent birds will make frantic attempts to distract the erection crew, in order to draw them away from their precious eggs. This includes moving rapidly away from the egg clutch to, hopefully, draw away what the birds can only conceive of as predators. Similar to several other species, the most characteristic motion the parents will make is to simulate an injury, by appearing to have a broken wing. They will shiver somewhat, peep quite a bit, and sometimes flop around, often looking over their shoulders to see where the predator is.

In this instance, a clutch of four eggs was discovered on the bay-side of Breezy Point and a volunteer crew, headed by Tony and consisting of Kim-Nora, Lisa and Chuck, took on the job of erecting the Exclosure. I was fortunate enough to be invited to tag along and document the exercise, which enabled me to capture some interesting imagery. Preferring to walk to the site, I left the Potluck gathering (see below) ahead of the rest of the crew. This enabled me to walk the bay-side beach in search of interesting bits of nature, as also documented here. I arrived on-site a few minutes ahead of the crew, who came along in the truck that hauled the construction materials and tools.

A second pair of Piping Plovers were observed a little further along the beach. Close observation showed dozens of nest “scrapes” (small depressions) in the sand, along with many, many sets of foot-prints. Apparently, these scrapes were made to provide a choice of spots for the female to lay her eggs. At Tony’s request, I remained behind to make observations while the rest of the crew departed after the erection of the above-mentioned Exclosure.

My observations were inconclusive, although one bird did occupy a scrape for the remaining time I was present. A visit a bit more than a week later revealed no activity, probably because several Great Black-back Gulls were loitering on the exact spot where the plover scrapes had been observed. The gulls love nothing better than to devour any eggs or hatchlings, so it is small wonder the plovers abandoned this particular site at that time. Several days later still, an Exclosure had been erected on the spot, so apparently, things for this nesting pair went well enough.

There is also life-and-death drama playing out daily on the beach. Creatures are born, while others die and their remains litter the beach. Many bird species have hatched and the young must be protected by their parents as they grow to a size where they can fend for themselves. There are predators that will easily snap-up a defenseless hatchling if given half a chance. Small dramas play out wherever one cares to look.



This pair of Sanderlings (Calidris canutus), a very common local species at various times of the year, was resting in between feeding as I passed them by. What caught my eye was the green “flag” on the left leg of the bird on the right. These flags, as well as the more commonly-seen “bands” are a means that naturalists use to track migration patterns in order to gather conservation data. Date: 05-30-2015.




This Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) is quite large and is probably a female; males are noticeably smaller. She is encrusted in barnacles as she makes her way out of the surf, possibly to lay her eggs. This prehistoric creature is actually related to the arachnid family and is not a crustacean. Date: 05-30-2015.



I’ve always wondered what the critters that occupy these large snail shells look like “naked”. This poor Hermit Crab had been mangled and killed by a predator, but not completely devoured; I only noticed him when I picked-up this rather attractive shell. He was easily slid out of his apparently ineffective fortress for a portrait. Date: 05-07-2015.




This pair of Sand Sharks was part of a larger group of these creatures that were left high-and-dry in the receding tide. What I find puzzling is that scavengers generally leave the flesh of these carcasses alone, preferring to feast only on their eyes. Date: 05-30-2015

















Sporting a facial expression akin to that of a chagrined cartoon character, this dead and partially decomposed Skate was discovered amongst several others in the mud-flats. The first image shows the creature’s underside, including the mouth and nostrils. These bottom feeders are a common sight on the bay-side beach as they are either stranded by wave and tidal forces, or caught and cast aside by fisher-folk. The lower image was made many weeks later and shows the top-side of another specimen. Although humans consume Skate meat, apparently its eyes were the only things felt to be edible by the local scavengers. Dates: 05-07- & 06-27-2015.



As I walked along the beach at Breezy bay-side a peripheral movement caught my eye. Observing a Great Egret (Ardea alba) that had just taken to the air from behind the dunes, I snapped a parting image. Back behind the dunes and in the general area of the maritime woodlands, are some shallow ponds, which is what may have attracted this species. Date: 05-07-2015.




The goal of the exercise on May 7th was to protect this clutch of Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) eggs. This species commonly produces four eggs per clutch. In this locale, past data has indicated that only one chick (actually 1.1) will survive to migrate south at the end of the season. These eggs are of a shape described as “oval” and “pyriform”; the latter type is more pointed and elongated. They typically measure 24.2-mm wide and 31.4-mm long, which would allow one to fit through the “window” of an old-style 35-mm color slide mount. The incubation period is approximately 28 days. Date: 05-07-2015.



While Tony, Lisa and Chuck begin assembling the Exclosure, Kim-Nora has fun un-tangling a wad of the smaller tie-wraps that are used to secure the roof. When this phase is complete, the structure is moved to the nest, the re-bar stakes are pounded in, the roof is fixed in place and trimmed; the crew immediately departs. The final part of the process is a short period of observation to ensure that the adult birds return to incubate the clutch. Thankfully, this happened rather quickly. Date: 05-07-2015.


The completed Exclosure in place over the nest site. Date: 05-30-2015.



These two images depict the frantic efforts of one of the adult Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) to distract us from doing harm to the contents of the nest. In the upper image, the bird is simulating a broken wing, all the while keeping an eye on us. At other times, as seen in the lower image, the bird would peep and kick up some sand. Date: 05-07-2015.
 
This Piping Plover was sitting in one of many, many scrapes (potential nest sites) situated about 60- or 70-yards further along the beach from the above described nest; the distance between nests is typical of the species. Eventually, a nest was discovered here and put under the protection of an Exclosure. Date: 05-07-2015.
 
Several weeks later, while inspecting the previously-described Exclosure, I noted this adult Piping Plover sheltering behind this piece of driftwood as it moved away from the nesting site. Date: 05-30-2015.
 
What may be a recently-fledged Piping Plover was doing quite a bit of low flying before it alighted on the shore-line. This behavior was a bit unusual, as these birds generally make a rapid retreat on foot; perhaps this youngster was “feeling his oats”? It was spotted in the general area of the above-described nesting 
 
A number of other species nest at Breezy Point, to include Common and Least Terns (Sterna hirundo & Sternula antillarum), Canada Goose (Branta canadensis), and American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus). This clutch of three eggs, typical of the last-mentioned species, was discovered between both of the above Piping Plover nesting sites. These eggs are described as being “oval” and “long oval” in shape, and are approximately 38.7-mm in diameter and 55.7-mm long; incubation is about 27 days. Date: 05-07-20.
 
Approximately five weeks have passed and an adult American Oystercatcher escorts a chick along the outer face of the bay-side dune line, again in the same general area. Date: 06-13-2015.
 
On this day, I observed two pairs of Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) parents, each with two young. The second pair had younger, smaller offspring, which attracted a predator in the form of a Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), below. To counter him, the parents closed in together almost touching, parallel to each other, with the hatchlings between them. This removed them from a clear view and also put a physical barrier in the way of the gull. Date: 05-30-2015.
 
Here is the hunter, hovering over his potential prey. The tactic of the parents being quite effective in concealing their chicks, he eventually tired of this fruitless endeavor, and departed. Date: 05-30-2015.
 
A couple of weeks later, I observed these much larger chicks in the same area as those above. While still flightless, they are of a substantial size and probably can quite easily stand-up against a gull. Date: 06-13-2015.
 
This Common Loon (Gavia immer) provided me with one of my most memorable birding moments, quite simply because it attacked me! Having encountered loons in several Breezy Point locations at different times, while they were seemingly immobilized on the shore, I am used to being able to get close. In this case, the bird gave several of its mournful calls and then launched itself at my left leg and foot, pecking me. Laughing as I hurriedly backpedaled, I quickly put my right foot beneath its rump and gently (but firmly) moved the bird away; no harm done to either party! Date: 06-27-2015.
 
This pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) chicks was encountered on the access road which runs from the B222 parking lot to Breezy Point’s ocean-side beaches; I often take this route while hiking completely around the far western tip of the Rockaways. These birds prefer open areas for nesting so they can see predators a long way off. These young consistently retreated before me, never once disappearing into the roadside vegetation; their genetic programming would not allow any other action. In order to relieve them of the stress from what they thought was a hunting predator, I had to run past them. Date: 06-13-2015.
 
The final image in this entry depicts a meeting of park staff and volunteers at Riis Landing for a Potluck Lunch on May 7. Such occasional social gatherings help further weld together an already devoted group, who seldom are able to gather together in any significant numbers at any single time. It was also an opportunity to bid farewell to Hanem, who is headed west to the Rocky Mountains, as well as to welcome Tami to Gateway. This “Dirty Dozen” consists of the following individuals. From L to R, top: Eileen, Lisa, Genie, Tami & Russ. From L to R, standing: Jim, Chuck, Kim-Nora, Lisa & Tony. From L to R, kneeling: Ron & Hanem.

All text and photos by Frank V. De Sisto.
References consulted for this entry include the following:

“Birds’ Nests, Eastern”, by H.H. Harrison. 1975, Haughton Mifflin. ISBN 9780395092.
Part of the Peterson Field Guides series, it details a large number of nests using color photographs and line drawings. An introductory chapter provides a basic overview.

“Fishes”, by M. Filisky & S. Landry. 1989, Haughton Mifflin. ISBN 13-9780395911792.
Peterson First Guides provide an inexpensive introduction to a number of subjects. A color illustration and a block of text details over 200 species.

“The Shorebird Guide”, by M. O’Brien, R. Crossley & K. Karlson. 2006, Haughton Mifflin. ISBN 13-9780618432943.
Packed with information and filled with excellent photographs, this is the “go-to” guide on the subject, with information on the Piping Plover and American Oystercatcher.

“Lives of North American Birds”, by K. Kaufman. 1996, Haughton Mifflin. ISBN 0618159886.
“The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior”, by C. Elphick, J.B. Dunning, Jr. & D.A. Sibley. 2001, Knopf. ISBN 9781400043866.
These two titles, combined, give an excellent overview of what it is to be a bird. Both titles have a distinctly different, yet complimentary point of view, and the graphic presentation also differs.

“Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Fifth Edition”, by J.L. Dunn & J. Alderfer. 2006, National Geographic. ISBN 0792253140.
A concise, well-illustrated guide, this guide has several means of quickly accessing a species account.

“Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City”, by L. Day & M.A. Klingler. 2007, Johns Hopkins. ISBN 13-9780801886829.
The informative text provides an excellent starting point for anyone exploring NYC and its environs. Color photographs, illustrations and maps round out the package.

Rocky Point needs your help. To volunteer, contact NPS Ranger Tony Luscombe at: dcalato6@gmail.com

For more photos of the various segments of the Gateway NRA complex, visit www.frankdesisto.com

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