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A Safe Place to Land

Assateague Island National Seashore is an important breeding site for threatened and endangered migratory shorebirds, including American oystercatchers, least terns and piping plovers.

  • Conservation
  • Animals

One of the three goals that guide the National Aquarium's conservation work is saving wildlife and habitats; we also applaud other organizations that protect animals and the places they live. The National Park Service, established by President Woodrow Wilson 106 years ago on August 25, 1916, does exactly that.

The National Park Service system covers more than 85 million acres across the U.S. and its territories. One of these areas, Assateague Island National Seashore, is just a few hours' drive from Baltimore and is an important nesting ground for migratory shorebirds.

People Pose Greatest Threat

While raccoons, red foxes, ghost crabs, gulls and raptors pose a risk to these three species by preying on their eggs or chicks, humans are by far their biggest threat. Through habitat loss due to development and climate change, as well as the presence of people and their pets on beaches, human activity has a serious impact on American oystercatchers, least terns and piping plovers.

"All three of these species need adequate space away from people so they can nest, incubate their eggs and forage with little interruption," Lindsay explains. "Their nests are really well camouflaged and difficult to see, so direct trampling is a concern. They will also pop off their nests to distract perceived threats like people, pets or other predators. If disturbed enough, they'll abandon their nests."

Using a remote camera, a researcher from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured a piping plover behavior of faking an injury like a broken wing to draw attention away from their nest when they perceive that it's threatened.

Temporary Beach Closures

To provide the protected nesting habitat these birds need, Lindsay and her team put up seasonal public-use closures on Assateague Island. Marked by posts and signs, these closures typically begin around April 1 and stay in place through early September. The interior habitat on the north end of Assateague Island—from the upper beach of the Atlantic Ocean to the bayside toward Sinepuxent Bay—is where the team observes the most nesting birds, so seasonal public-use closures are focused in that area, although not limited to it.

From spring through summer, a small core team of biologists plus three to six seasonal technicians and interns monitor all the nesting shorebirds on the Maryland side of Assateague Island. They also keep an eye on other threatened and endangered species on the island, like Northeastern beach tiger beetles and nesting sea turtles.

Keeping Watch

"Once the birds arrive, the team finds breeding pairs and observes their behaviors from a safe distance to locate their nests," Lindsay says. "We then monitor the nests for hatching. Once chicks hatch, we check on their survival and movements until they fledge."

American oystercatchers, for example, lay their speckled eggs out in the open on sandy beaches, which gives them little protection.

For piping plovers—which now have a global breeding population of only 8,400 individual birds—the team takes the additional step of constructing a wire structure around their nests to better protect them from predators. There have been as many as 60 nesting pairs of piping plovers at a time on Assateague Island in the past 20 years. There have not been that many recently, which Lindsay attributes to a lack of the breeding habitat piping plovers prefer.

"These birds depend on natural processes such as storms to create and open up suitable nesting and foraging habitat," she explains. "Sandy areas with sparse vegetation and access to bayside foraging areas are important, particularly for piping plover broods. In recent years, Assateague Island has not had a large storm to overwash sand from the ocean to the bay, so vegetation has encroached into some of the areas where these birds would previously nest, particularly on the north end of Assateague."

While Assateague Island supports the only nesting population of piping plovers in Maryland, all three species can be observed on the Delmarva peninsula during breeding season. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, just south of Assateague Island, Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and state parks like Cape Henlopen in Delaware offer other protected places where these threatened shorebirds can forage, nest and raise their young.

More Assateague Island Animals

To learn more about plant and animal species found in barrier island ecosystems, read about a visit to Assateague Island National Seashore with Aquarium Vice President of Conservation Programs Laura Bankey.

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