While humans certainly can wreak havoc on the nests of shorebirds such as piping plovers and least terns, so can Mother Nature. A late-June storm that battered Cape Cod National Seashore destroyed a large majority of the seashore's plover and least nests.
According to seashore officials, the nor'easter destroyed 15 plover nests (or 73 percent of the known total), killed 53 plover chicks (52 percent), and washed away 90 percent of the seashore's least tern nests.
Piping plovers are protected as a federally-listed species and least terns are listed as protected species by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
"Miles of the symbolic fencing and signs used to protect habitat and guide visitors were lost, and several plover nest exclosures were crushed or buried by sand," reports the seashore staff.
"I have never witnessed such high storm-related chick mortality," says Mark Hake, the seashore's shorebird biologist.
This year already had the makings of a potentially-difficult nesting season at Cape Cod even before the late-June storm. Beaches in the south district of the seashore were already unusually narrow, making it difficult to provide adequate protection to nesting shorebirds. Plover chicks appeared to be maturing more slowly than usual, attributable in part to June's cool wet weather. Predation, particularly from crows, had already caused notable nest loss throughout the seashore. The pre-and post-storm beach conditions will likely result in 2009 turning out to be a poor year for shorebirds.
All that said, recovery is under way.
"In many locations, the beach has begun to retain sand, re-initiating the slow process of beach building we usually see through the late spring and summer," notes the seashore staff. "Plovers and terns are re-nesting in the new supra-tidal habitat created as the beach rebuilds, as well as in those areas of habitat that remained intact through the storm. And the plover chicks that did survive are continuing to grow, with each day of survival increasing their chances of fledging and perhaps returning to nest in future years."
The seashore's staff is monitoring closely the evolving shape of the beach and the response of plovers and terns. Habitat, nest, and chick-protection measures, such as symbolic fencing, no-dog areas, and ORV/pedestrian restrictions, are being adjusted on a daily basis in response to observed conditions.
For example, the previous high-tide pedestrian closure at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham has been lifted in light of the loss of nests, the maturation of the few surviving plover chicks, and the building beach. At the same time, new protection measures are being put in place in other areas, such as Marconi Beach and Great Island, and could be reinstated at Coast Guard Beach or other locations if new nesting is observed. As a result, it is important for visitors to look for the temporary informational signs advising of closures, restrictions, and hiking options.
"For many of us, beaches are the embodiment of land-sea interaction, and it is this highly dynamic character that makes them such fascinating and inspirational places," says Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent George Price. "While it can be difficult to see the immediate, short-term impacts of this storm, we find ourselves even more fascinated and inspired by the resilience of these ecosystems and the tenaciousness of the species that depend on them."