The North Fork once again is home to nesting piping plovers and least terns — birds that are listed as endangered species in New York State and are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Plovers began to arrive on the North Fork in March and least terns in May, migrating from their winter habitats anywhere from North Carolina to more southern coasts.
Tom Damiani acts as tern and plover steward for the North Fork Audubon Society and is also the visitor center coordinator for The Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island. Damiani and volunteers from the North Fork Audubon Society erected string fences at the beach sites in April with volunteer training taking place shortly after.
Damiani and a group of trained volunteers monitor 20 sites between Greenport and Mattituck. To date, three clutches totaling 11 piping plover chicks have hatched with four surviving so far. Four more clutches are expected to hatch this month. Both males and females take turns incubating the typically four speckled egg nests.
The nest is simply a scrape in the sand with a few broken shells and eggs the size of three almonds. It takes about 25 days for chicks to hatch — newly hatched plover chicks look like cotton balls on toothpick legs. Once plover chicks hatch they are flightless for four weeks, typically seeking food at the wrack (high tide) line where they will eat insects and other small invertebrates. Damiani has also seen them “work the upper beach eating anything that moves and is small enough to consume.”
Flightless plover chicks in need of food, running in different directions, are vulnerable to predators. Parent plovers will make a peep sound, resembling a smoke alarm with batteries on the brink, when predators begin to get too close to the young. Once the peep is heard, the young will return to parental proximity.
Least terns are the main species of terns Damiani said he sees on the North Fork.
“Least terns nest colonially in the same habitat as piping plover and they typically lay two eggs. Their young are precocial like the piping plovers' but the parents feed them until they fledge and can fish on their own. They are aggressive around their nesting grounds, diving at potential predators and generally making a fuss.”
Damiani works tirelessly monitoring these species, erecting exclosures around plover nests, and fencing least tern nesting areas.
"Both of these species need to be protected. Any loss of any species weakens the web of life. We must not forget that we are part of that web."
North Fork residents can help out terns and plovers by keeping domestic pets from roaming unattended where they could harm eggs or flightless chicks, and refrain from: operating motor vehicles on nesting beaches, setting off illegal fireworks where adult birds may abandon eggs or chicks, raking seaweed, setting bonfires, and discarding fishing line that may entangle birds.