Nature returns: Restoration brings back birds

This year’s severe storms underscore the power of nature and the vulnerability of our coasts. While nature can destroy, it can also defend. Supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, we’re working with partners to restore and strengthen natural systems that provide not only habitat for wildlife, but also protection against rising seas and storm surge. This is one in a series of stories highlighting results of our ongoing efforts to build a stronger coast.

Red knots taking off from the beach at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware Bay. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Even if you’re not a birder, there are a lot of reasons to care about birds. There are of course their aesthetic qualities — beautiful, charming, euphonious — and their incredible feats of survival as small creatures in a big, ever-changing world.

But like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, when birds aren’t doing well it usually means their habitat is suffering in some way. And if the habitat isn’t functioning, people lose out too; on the benefits that nature provides, from clean air and water to storm defenses.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the Fish and Wildlife Service invested in restoring and protecting natural systems up and down the East Coast that provide important habitat for wildlife while also creating natural defenses for people. A big part of building this stronger coast is making sure that wildlife like shorebirds have the habitat they need — the marshes, beaches and dunes — to nest, feed and raise their young.

Here are stories of how restoration efforts are helping ensure a brighter future for three bird species — red knot, piping plover and saltmarsh sparrow.

Red knots and horseshoe crabs at Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Red knots hit the vending machines at Delaware Bay beaches

Migratory birds have some of the longest migrations of any animal on the planet, covering thousands of miles in mere days. Critical to their success on this journey are stopover points where they can fill up on much-needed calories that will fuel them for the rest of their flight.

For many species, the beaches along Delaware Bay provide these pit-stops. Red knot, sandpipers, dowitchers and ruddy turnstones travel from their winter homes in the southern hemisphere north to the Arctic to nest and raise their young. Along the way, they stop in Delaware Bay to feed on plump, abundant horseshoe crab eggs.

But in 2012, Hurricane Sandy barreled in and wiped out about 70% of horseshoe crab habitat in Delaware Bay.

A handful of tiny, green horseshoe crab eggs. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

In response, the Service worked with partners — including the American Littoral Society and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey — at numerous sites to restore beaches and improve conditions for spawning horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds. So far the work is paying off — horseshoe crab numbers are increasing, and beach habitat for shorebirds is at its best since Hurricane Sandy.

Mispillion Harbor beach covered in horseshoe crabs. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

At one site — Reed’s Beach — we replenished the beach, built a living shoreline and collaborated on research to study the movement of sand in the bay. Since completion, biologists have observed frequent horseshoe crab spawning and increased shorebird foraging. Their data also indicate that restored beaches are supporting more shorebirds, more spawning horseshoe crabs and more egg abundance than degraded or unrestored beaches.

It will take many more years to know if bird populations are actually rebounding. But in 2018, red knot numbers were twice as high as in 2017.

Volunteers bag oyster shells for the living shoreline at Reed’s Beach. Credit: American Littoral Society

There have also been benefits to nearby communities. The living shoreline at Reed’s — comprised of a 200-foot-long intertidal oyster reef — has reduced wave energy by 35%, helping control erosion, build-up beach sand and create calmer waters.

“I’ve heard from residents and neighbors that they are happy to have the reef and elevated beaches there to protect their homes,” says Service biologist Danielle McCulloch. “The sand accretion demonstrates that this type of restoration project combats rising sea levels and has potential to protect communities.”

The completed oyster reef at Reed’s Beach. Credit: American Littoral Society

McCulloch notes that the project also stood up well during the winter Nor’easters of 2017–18, when ice formed in the bay. There was concern that the living shoreline would fail under the ice, but the project proved extremely successful — the reefs were exposed to more than three feet of ice, yet they remained in place with minimal damage and the beaches persisted despite the storms.

“The resiliency of the reef has exceeded our expectations,” says McCulloch.

A piping plover photographed at Cape May along the Delaware Bay. Credit: Don Freiday/USFWS

Piping plovers find a new home at Prime Hook

For the past three years, piping plovers have made a home on Fowler Beach at Delaware’s Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge — where the federally threatened and state endangered shorebird hasn’t been found since before the refuge was created in 1963.

The appearance of piping plovers at the refuge is due to the restoration of two miles at Fowler Beach, rebuilt in 2015–2016 as part of a $38-million resilience project funded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The sand brought in for the beach helped create ideal plover habitat.

New beach and fenced-off grasses at Prime Hook NWR. Credit: Citizen Racecar

In 2016, refuge biologist Annie Larsen found the first nest on the beach.

“We were shocked,” says Larsen.”The restoration project was still underway, with construction crews and equipment out there, and a pair of piping plovers decided to set up shop! It was mind-boggling.”

What made it even more of a surprise is that piping plovers typically prefer beaches on the ocean where there is more wave action, rather than on the bay side like Fowler.

Unfortunately, the first nest was destroyed by a fox. But in 2017, plovers established seven nests that resulted in 12 young birds. Numbers rose again in 2018, with 12 nests that fledged a total of 29 plovers. This is a state record for the federally threatened bird species.

Plovers are tiny, sand-colored shorebirds that build shallow nests in beach sand. Once they lay a few eggs, it takes a couple of months for the eggs to hatch and the chicks to be large enough to fledge. Because all of this happens on an open beach, they are highly susceptible to predation from animals or the impacts of bad weather.

A piping plover and chick. Credit: Dave Frederick, Creative Commons

To help, biologists set up fencing around the nests once they have been spotted. And at wildlife refuges such as Prime Hook, many beaches are closed to the public during bird nesting season. In 2018, Annie Larsen received the Northeast Region’s “Refuge Biologist of the Year” award for her efforts to protect piping plovers at Prime Hook.

All of which will hopefully help the bird rebound. Recovery goals for the piping plover aim to establish 2,000 breeding pairs across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

Surprisingly, in some places Sandy actually helped create new and better habitat for plovers. On Long Island and along the New Jersey coast at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, Sandy’s winds and waves created what biologists call “overwash fans” — open, wide expanses of sandy beach that are ideal for plover nesting.

“In the years after Sandy, we went from 12 to 25 pairs at Forsythe,” said Todd Pover, a biologist who has monitored piping plovers for 25 years.

Piping plover eggs in the sand at Long Beach West habitat restoration site, CT. Credit: Patrick Commins, Audubon CT

With funding from the Service for building coastal resilience after Sandy, Pover’s organization — Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey — and Rutgers University created a tool for identifying newly formed beach habitat after big storms. The team compared sites before and after Sandy to identify habitat changes that benefited beach-nesting birds. The results have been used as a guide for communities that receive federal funding to protect piping plovers.

Every little bit helps.

A saltmarsh sparrow soars over marsh grasses. Credit: Flickr user Seabamirum/creative commons

Saltmarsh sparrows sound the alarm

The song of the saltmarsh sparrow is often described as “quiet” or even a “whisper song.” But scientists are listening loud and clear to what this bird has to say.

Dependent on tidal marshes for nesting, saltmarsh sparrows are highly threatened by sea-level rise. Populations have declined rapidly since the 1990s, with roughly 75% of the population disappearing in the past 20 years. Scientists are racing to keep numbers from falling below a threshold of 10,000 birds, which could be the point of no return.

A saltmarsh sparrow photographed in Delaware. Credit: Matt Tillett, creative commons

Wading amid flooded nests to count drowned chicks is no walk in the park, but scientists are hopeful their actions will make a difference.

Their approach is two-fold: 1) a coordinated effort to collect data over a wide region of the bird’s habitat in order to understand what works and what doesn’t work, and 2) conservation and restoration of the high marsh habitat these birds need to survive.

On the research side, Dr. Chris Elphick is one of the principal investigators on the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program (SHARP). The project engages dozens of individuals and groups at more than a thousand locations from Virginia to Maine to gather data about current saltmarsh sparrow populations and their marsh habitat. The project is also looking at all sites where Hurricane Sandy-funded marsh restoration has occurred, comparing this information to pre-restoration conditions and control group sites.

All told, the data collection is a massive undertaking that will take years to complete and analyze.

“What makes this unique and important is that it’s a coordinated effort — everyone is collecting the same data in the same way in numerous places,” says Elphick. “Doing this at so many sites is almost unheard of in conservation management. It’s a true scientific experiment.”

Dr. Chris Elphick holds a female saltmarsh sparrow after she was banded. Credit: Charlotte Murtishaw\USFWS

It’s too early to have scientific results, says Elphick. But the benefits of protecting and restoring marshes are undeniable.

Salt marshes are Mother Nature’s filtration system. As fresh water travels over or under land towards the ocean, it crosses farms and developed areas, picking up nutrients and chemicals along the way. A marsh can be the last line of defense for filtering out these toxins before the water flows into the ocean, right next to public access areas for swimming or fishing.

Marshes also help protect coastal infrastructure from storm surge and flooding, acting like sponges to soak up excess water. And more: they take carbon out of the atmosphere, countering climate change; they create recreation opportunities for birders, anglers and hunters; and they provide critical habitat as nurseries for fish or nesting grounds for birds such as the tiny saltmarsh sparrow.

“Everything we do to protect saltmarsh sparrows will also benefit the wildlife, plants and people that depend on salt marsh habitat,” says Elphick.

Salt marsh at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, MA. Credit: Matt Poole/USFWS