Conservation of Piping Plovers at Napatree Point: A Case Study in Collaboration, Science, and Education

Piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) have it hard!  Historically, they were harvested for their feathers which were highly valued in decorating fashionable hats for ladies.  In recent years, coastal habitat loss combined with high nest mortality due to predation by birds and mammals as well as human disturbance have all contributed to the decline of piping plover populations. Climate change-induced sea level rise, especially where natural barrier beach dynamics are impeded, is seen as an emerging new threat to piping plover populations. As such, piping plovers are considered a threatened species by the United States federal government. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is the lead agency in developing and implementing piping plover conservation plans.

The barrier beach dune system is excellent breeding habitat for plovers in the Napatree Point Conservation Area. Their nests consist of shallow depressions (scrapes) in sandy/pebbly areas on the beaches above the high tide line. The exposed nature of piping plover nests make them very vulnerable to predation by birds and mammals, disturbance by pets, especially unleashed dogs, and inundation during exceptionally high tides and storm surge.

One of the first activities initiated by the Watch Hill Conservancy (WHC) when it was established was to create a partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to collaboratively work to protect the piping plovers on Napatree. Plovers are the emblematic logo of the WHC. WHC personnel assist FWS scientists in a number of ways: they help erect fencing to keep the public away from plover nesting and feeding sites, observe plovers for nest building behavior, monitor nests, and remove fencing at the end of the season.

The collaborative work to conserve piping plovers also includes other activities and partners. The WHC education team teaches children about plover ecology and conservation in their Napatree Investigators youth education program. Scientists from the University of Rhode Island have begun monitoring the diversity and abundance of mammalian predators of piping plovers in the NPCA. WHC staff naturalists have developed interpretative signage on the beach to educate the public of plover ecology and the need to conserve this migratory species.

The piping plover conservation program at Napatree highlights a number of important features of how the WHC works.

  • The project is done with multiple partners who share a common goal. Collaboration is key.
  • The fundamental principle of plover conservation in the NPCA is let the dune ecosystem behave naturally and this will ensure the sustained availability of plover habitat.
  • Take a long term view of success. Unforeseen events, such as storms and spikes in predation occur thus resulting in some years being more productive in nest success than others.
  • Be vigilant with systematic monitoring in order to know if management activities are having the desired effects.
  • Finally, education is key. The spectacular life history of piping plovers and the effort to conserve them is a teaching moment for visitors to Napatree.  Almost always, the public wants to do the right thing to protect the Napatree ecosystem; thus, it is incumbent on the WHC and its partners to clearly educate the importance and value of this charismatic symbol of the organization.