Recovery Champions: Recognizing the piping plover team at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge

Every year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service celebrates the contributions and achievements of our nationally recognized Recovery Champions. These dedicated individuals have devoted themselves to recovering endangered and threatened animals and plants.

Art Coppola, Annabella Larsen, Stormy Vandeplas, Dale Hudson, Stephanie Warshawksy, Jeffrey Newcomer, Hollis Provis, Julie McCall, Matt Bailey, and Kevin Bronson make up the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge Piping Plover Team and have been selected as the 2019 Recovery Champion Team for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s North Atlantic-Appalachian Region. The piping plover team is widely recognized for its leadership in conserving Atlantic Coast piping plovers, whose numbers continue to improve in the state of Delaware.

Left: Provins, Coppola, Vandeplas, and Warshawsky. USFWS — Right: Annie Larsen, Credit: Maddy Lauria/The News Journal

Before the restoration project began at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, only a handful of plovers were recorded nesting in the surrounding area. While plovers occasionally visited the refuge, none were recorded nesting there. That is, until the completion of a significant beach restoration project.

Piping plovers prefer open beach habitat with sparce vegetation for their nests. Chicks also need easy access to the water’s edge, where they spend the majority of their time foraging in the sand. Nests, eggs, and chicks camouflage impressively into the sand, but they are still vulnerable to predators and foot traffic.

For decades, refuge staff managed the marsh as freshwater habitat for migratory birds. In 2012, however, Hurricane Sandy flooded the marsh with sea water, killing the freshwater plants. Service staff decided to return the marsh to its natural state and build a stronger coast.

In 2015, efforts began to restore the tidal marsh, dunes and plover habitat on Fowler Beach at the refuge. The project aimed to improve coastline habitat for piping plovers by creating sandy beach habitat while also strengthening the coastal environment against future storms with the restoration of the tidal marsh and dunes.

Left: One of the back barrier salt marshes at Prime Hook NWR. Right: Newly planted beach grass on the restored dune. Credit: USFWS

Julie McCall, Prime Hook NWR local and accomplished volunteer, spent years observing plovers, terns, and other wildlife on local Delaware beaches, but found this restoration project especially rewarding. While the project was still underway in 2016, a pair of piping plovers showed up and started a nest.

“We would have a piping plover sighting here or there at Fowler Beach before the restoration, and we were delighted that they began nesting there the very next year,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

A piping plover with a white leg band. USFWS

Plover technician, Stormy Vandeplas, and volunteer, Kevin Bronson, were thrilled to find plovers nesting on Fowler Beach.

“The ‘explosion’ of plover numbers in Delaware has been great and we were all ecstatic after finding that first nest,” said Bronson.

Vandeplas stated, “We are so lucky to be able to watch them grow within weeks and experience very beginnings. Although it is bittersweet to arrive at an empty beach come the fall migration, it’s truly incredible knowing you had an positive impact when they spread their wings and fly.”

Jeffrey Newcomer, a wildlife biologist with USDA Wildlife Services, joined the team in 2018.

“When we had 12 pair fledge 29 hatch-year birds in the 2018 season, we all thought we were doing something (and we were),” Newcomer said. “Then, the 2019 season brought 14 pair which fledged 44 juveniles. The drastic increase I have seen over the last two completed seasons is astounding, and I find it very exciting, to say the least.”

Piping plover eggs and chicks. USFWS

This well exceeds targets set in the recovery plan, representing a meaningful contribution to the species recovery and a new stronghold for the species within the state of Delaware.

“It’s our duty to protect these species, and we’ll do everything we can to do so,” said Art Coppola, manager of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

Matt Bailey spent the last 20 years working for nesting shorebirds with the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, the Audubon society, and currently serves as a volunteer for the state and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

“There is certainly a lot of interplay between agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Delaware Department of National Resources, USDA Wildlife Services, on top of all the volunteers who are monitoring plovers, collecting data, and protecting nests from predators,” Bailey said. “It’s nice having a core group of people who are knowledgeable about the birds, and incorporating everyone into the conservation efforts has been key to the plover’s success.”

This cooperation between agencies and with volunteers serves as a model for recovery partnerships for other species.

“We have a great relationship with our partners, and without them, we wouldn’t achieve our mission,” said Coppola.

To several team members, seeing the birds was reward enough.

Piping plover on the beach. USFWS

“It was a real privilege to get to observe the wildlife on these quiet, pristine beaches every year and get to be part of their recovery,” McCall explained. “It was rewarding to see the plovers right at home on Fowler Beach.”

Newcomer added, “This work can be challenging, but as a team, we make it fairly easy. I enjoy watching the little poof-balls with toothpick legs (plover chicks) running about the beach and foraging in the tideline. However, enduring all of the blood loss from mosquitos and ticks along with the ounces (if not gallons) of sweat lost throughout the season is completely worth it to me when I get to experience the hatch year birds take their first awkward flights!”

The team’s major efforts in Delaware have contributed to a 35-year conservation effort by the Service, partners and mindful beachgoers to boost piping plovers numbers along the Atlantic Coast. In the 2019 season, the Atlantic Coast population climbed from 1,879 pairs in 2018 to a record high of 2,008 breeding pairs from eastern Canada south to North Carolina.

The Recovery Champion awards began in 2002 as a one-time recognition for Service staff members for their achievements in conserving listed species. However, in 2007 the program was expanded to honor Service partners as well, recognizing their essential role in the recovery of threatened and endangered species.

For photos and information about the 2019 Recovery Champions, please visit: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/recovery-champions/index.html

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information about our work and the people who make it happen, visit https://www.fws.gov/northeast/ or connect with us via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr.

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