By Mel Julien
I didn’t know what a piping plover was until recently. If I were to identify a plover a year ago, I would have pointed to a sanderling. The shocking part in all of this is that I’m a lifelong Rockaway resident, currently living in Edgemere. While I’ve seen these shorebirds before, I didn’t take their existence into consideration. They’re just birds after all, right?
The piping plover is a small shorebird that nests on Rockaway’s beaches, such as Breezy Point Tip, Fort Tilden, Far Rockaway and Edgemere, each spring and summer. Unlike shorebirds like sanderlings, the piping plover is endangered in our state, and a federally-threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. There are as few as 6,000 plovers worldwide. To put that into perspective, Rockaway’s population of approximately 134,700 people is twenty-two times the size of the global plover population. Of those 6,000 plovers, about 100 choose Rockaway as their summer home, year after year. Some return to the exact same beaches each year, supported by evidence of some chicks being banded and researched throughout their lifetimes. But again, they’re just birds, right?
Increased human disturbance and habitat loss are the leading challenges to the piping plover’s survival. For the latter, climate change can cause nest loss. For the former, the unfortunate truth is that piping plovers are often viewed as an inconvenience or disturbance by their human neighbors. It’s key to understand that for plover chicks to survive and thrive, they need direct shoreline access. To help the plovers – and other shorebirds, like oystercatchers, terns and skimmers – maintain their populations, temporary symbolic fencing is installed to signal to beachgoers where beaches are accessible during nesting season. The ire from some residents regarding temporary closures is noticeable; with this negative mindset, it’s easy to understand increasing acts of violence against these shorebirds. Last year, an adult plover was killed in Edgemere, and a chick was killed after being stepped on at Fort Tilden. This year, eggs were stolen from Far Rockaway nests, outside of the protected area. What will happen next year, taking the current shoreline access conversation into consideration? Major TV networks covered this year’s vandalism, but very little Rockaway media coverage came both years. Notably, not one Rockaway elected official has provided an official comment denouncing the vandalism. But it doesn’t matter, they’re just birds, right?
In my year of conservation work focused on protecting Rockaway’s plover population, I’ve learned that my community has varying degrees of understanding of the plovers. Some do not know they exist, like myself until recently. Some choose to believe misinformation. But there’s a growing number of those who are curious and supportive of stewardship efforts. My ask of my community is simple: lean into the current conversation regarding piping plovers. Research the resilience of these small shorebirds. You just might see their commonalities with humans. Yes, they are birds. But they matter and deserve a fair chance at life.
Mel Julien is an Edgemere resident and NYC Plover Project Community Liaison.
Photo by Theresa Racine.