DEEP: Piping Plover/Least Tern Report for the 2002 Nesting Season

Piping Plover/Least Tern Report for the 2002 Nesting Season
Adapted from an article that appeared in the September/October 2002 issue of  Connecticut Wildlife.

{Least tern flying}
Least tern numbers have been declining in Connecticut over a five-year period, beginning in 1998 with 447 pairs to the low this year of 221 pairs.

A Good Piping Plover Season
The piping plover breeding season has ended, and the birds started heading south for the winter in late August. This past season, 31 pairs of plovers attempted to nest in Connecticut, one pair less than last year. The number of successful fledges (58) increased from the number of fledges last year (39). The total fledge success for the season was extremely high at 93.5 percent, with only four chicks lost all season. This is a very encouraging result. The 2002 average of 1.87 chicks per nesting pair is similar to results from 2000 (1.86 chicks per nesting pair).

The number of plovers using the Connecticut shoreline has remained either constant or increased over each of the last five years. Beaches traditionally used by plovers range from Waterford to Stratford. In 2002, Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Long Beach in Stratford and the Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center in Milford had the greatest breeding success.

Piping Plover Protection Plan
The piping plover is a state and federally threatened species and is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1986 and the Connecticut Endangered Species Act. There are very specific and carefully researched procedures in place to protect these birds. Initially, beaches designated as breeding grounds are fenced off with string to encourage people and dogs from disturbing birds in the area. Educational signs, "keep away," and "no dog" signs also are posted around these areas. When individual plover nests are located, a wire "exclosure" with a net top is erected around each nest. The "exclosure" is designed to keep dogs, skunks, raccoons, weasels, foxes and avian predators from reaching the eggs. Because plovers generally walk more than fly, they are able to easily enter and exit the exclosure through the small fence openings. The success rate for nests that were exclosed was 70 percent this year, versus a success rate of 30 percent for unexclosed nests.

Plovers Face Many Challenges
Overall, 28 plover nests were not successful. Plovers require sandy, vegetation-free beach areas where they lay their eggs in a small depression in the sand. Unfortunately, there is a diminishing amount of this type of habitat available for piping plovers, and very few of the remaining areas are left undisturbed. Many plovers nested below the storm high tide line, making the nests vulnerable to wash-outs during spring high tides. Twelve nests were destroyed by wash-outs this year. To counter these losses, many plovers nested within the vegetation zone of the beach this year, which may have resulted in greater predation rates. Fourteen nests were lost due to predation by foxes, feral cats, raccoons, rats and avian predators. Of the 14 depredated nests, five were located within fairly dense beach vegetation.

Finally, human disturbance can play a role in nest failure. In 2002, plovers nesting within roped and signed areas experienced a minimal amount of human interference. All of the volunteers who assisted with public education and safeguarded nesting areas should be commended on an excellent effort.

Least Terns Didnít Fare as Well
Least tern numbers have been declining in Connecticut over a five-year period, beginning in 1998 with 447 pairs to the low this year of 221 pairs. Only 38 tern chicks had fledged by the end of the summer. However, the number of terns within the state, as well as the number of fledged chicks, was higher than in 2001. The decline in the breeding success of the least tern is alarming to many biologists and birders, as the tern is a state threatened species.

Like Plover, Like Tern
Least terns are colonial nesters and are usually found near or among piping plover nests. However, in 2002, there were no instances of plovers and terns nesting together. Like piping plovers, nesting least terns face many obstacles--loss of suitable habitat, predation, wash-outs and human disturbance all contribute to nest failures. Terns are especially vulnerable to human disturbance--prolonged or excessive disturbance can result in the abandonment of the nesting area by the entire colony. Several cases occurred this year, one in which evidence of a large bonfire was found less than five feet from the rope-fencing and "please keep away" signs.