Amid all the destruction and havoc caused by Hurricane Sandy last October, there is potentially good news for the federally threatened piping plover and other shorebirds that area beaches. The National Park Service (NPS) has found a nearly twofold increase in suitable shorebird nesting habitat at NPS’s Rockaway Beaches since Sandy impacted the area.
On that October night, Sandy wiped out and pushed back beach grass and other vegetation at the Rockaway beaches. The result: increased areas of dry, sandy beach habitat that shorebirds such as the piping plover need for productive nesting, according to NPS biologist Hanem Abouelezz. Looking at aerial satellite images of the area before and after the storm, Hanem found a 94.7% increase in potentially suitable shorebird nesting habitat within NPS-maintained beach areas such as Fort Tilden, Breezy Point, and Jacob Riis Park.
For years, intruding vegetation at Rockaway beaches forced piping plovers and other shorebirds to nest closer to the shore, leading to eggs being lost due to tidal flooding. New data collected by Hanem and her team suggests piping plover nesting may already be benefitting from the post-Sandy habitat changes. Whereas last year 54% of piping plover eggs monitored were lost due to tidal flooding, this year none were lost. The bird is even finding success nesting in formerly inhospitable areas. Piping plovers successful fledged at Fort Tilden this year for the first time since NPS started monitoring the area.
In addition to aiding the piping plover, post-Sandy habitat could also benefit nesting populations of least terns, common terns, American oystercatchers, and other shorebirds that similarly prefer flat, sandy beaches for nesting. However exciting the news is, it is too early to tell whether the change in habitat alone will lead to increased shorebird breeding productivity in the area. A variety of factors are involved in shorebird breeding success, including predation, interspecific competition, weather patterns, and human interference.