BiodiversityWorks works with private landowners, beach associations, and land trusts to monitor and protect nesting Piping plovers (Charadrius melodus), American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus), Least terns (Sterna antillarum), Common terns (Sterna hirundo), Roseate terns (Sterna dougallii), and Black skimmers (Rhyncops niger). We collaborate with other conservation organizations on Martha’s Vineyard to ensure that all beaches and small islands with suitable nesting habitat are monitored and protected along the island’s 124 miles of shoreline.
Each spring and summer we protect nesting areas with symbolic fencing (posts and rope) so that people and birds can share the shore safely. We walk many miles of beach locating nesting pairs, censusing their numbers, and collecting data on nest and chick survival. We also work to reduce predation pressure by superabundant predators (primarily American crows and striped skunks) at beaches where they eat more than 60% of eggs laid or chicks hatched. Besides the joy of seeing chicks hatch and fledge, sharing our passion for beach-nesting birds is a favorite part of our work. At the bottom of this page you will find a map of the beaches were we work and a summary of the birds we protected and their productivity from 2011 – 2020.
Piping plovers are small migratory shorebirds that nest on open, sandy beaches from Newfoundland to North Carolina. The females lay a clutch of four eggs over a period of a week in a simple scrape in the sand. Both the male and the female share incubation duties over 26 days and, like many other shorebird species, the chicks are precocial when they hatch. Covered in downy feathers, chicks leave the nest scrape within hours of hatching and are able to feed themselves. Their parents protect them from predators using distraction displays and brood the chicks to keep them warm and dry or shaded from the hot sun. Piping plovers are perfectly adapted for life on the beach, but habitat loss to development and coastal erosion, displacement by people recreating on the beach, and increased predation on eggs and chicks has led to population declines throughout their range.
Atlantic Coast Piping plovers are federally protected as a ‘threatened’ species, and they are also protected under the Massachusetts endangered species act. Currently, there are ~ 2,000 pairs nesting from Newfoundland to North Carolina. The recovery goal for this population is 2,000 pairs, with an average productivity of 1.5 chicks per pair over a five year period. Each year, we protect 30 – 39 pairs of piping plovers at beaches across the island. Click here to read more about the Piping plover and here for a slideshow.
Martha’s Vineyard has a lot of food subsidies for beach-nesting bird predators such as skunks, crows, and gulls, and these human food subsidies artificially boost numbers of these predators. Sadly, this can result in the loss of 70 – 80% of eggs in a season. One tool we can use to protect some nests is a predator exclosure. Have you seen one of these circular wire fences inside a beach bird nesting area and wondered about it? The wire mesh is large enough for a plover to walk in and out, but excludes larger egg predators. The netting over the top prevents crows and gulls from flying into the circle of fencing and isn’t a problem for the plovers who like to walk to their nests. With a state permit, we can exclose a nest in 15 minutes or less and not cause harm to the eggs. We are grateful when volunteers are able to help us. While these protect eggs, they can be risky if a hawk or owl is nesting nearby and hunts the adults, so we are careful about where we use predator exclosures.
Least, Common and Roseate Terns
Least terns and common terns are both listed as a ‘Species of special concern’ in Massachusetts while roseate terns are ‘endangered’ both federally and under Massachusetts law. Least terns often share habitat with piping plovers while common and roseate terns do so occasionally. Terns are colonial nesters and a colony can consist of a few pairs to a several hundred pairs. These birds are more aggressive and will dive at intruders that get too close to the colony. Their incubation period is several days shorter than piping plovers, and while their chicks also hatch with a downy covering, the tern parents feed their chicks. To learn more about each species, Click here to learn more about least terns. Click here to learn more about common terns, and Click here to learn more about roseate terns.
American Oystercatchers are conspicuous shorebirds with their long, bright orange bills specialized for opening bivalves. Much like piping plovers, American oystercatchers nest on sand or gravel beaches, and small islands. Although they are not a listed species, they are very sensitive to human disturbance and benefit from the symbolic fencing that we put in place to protect their nests and chick rearing areas. Oystercatcher chicks sometimes lie motionless in the wrackline (seaweed) on the beach where they could be stepped on by people or dogs. It’s important to stay away from posted nesting areas.
We are collaborating with the American Oystercatcher Working Group to locate new nesting areas, protect nesting pairs, re-sight banded birds from prior years, and to learn more about the migration habits of these birds.
If you are interested in volunteering with our beach-nesting bird program, visit our volunteer page for more information.
We can’t always predict the location or size of a colony from year to year, so terns require that we be able to respond quickly to colony initiation with protective predator fencing. Even one skunk raiding for eggs can cause complete colony failure in only a few days. In 2011, a peregrine falcon caused abandonment of several tern colonies on the island, and in 2015 a couple of tern colonies were raided by crows. Little Beach, owned by Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, has become a very productive site for nesting birds. In 2015, 75 pairs of Common terns, 10 pairs of Roseate Terns and and 5 pairs of Black Skimmers also nested on the narrow spit.
Black Skimmers are colorful and charismatic birds that delight many beach goers who enjoy watching these birds skim for their supper. They are also colonial nesters and often prefer to nest with the more aggressive tern species. This species began nesting in Massachusetts in the 1990’s and they are at the northernmost extent of their breeding range here. For the past several years, Martha’s Vineyard has hosted the only colony in the state and has been growing annually.
We began a collaborative banding project with MassWildlife and The Trustees in 2017 capturing and banding chicks with field readable bands before the fledged. We have banded over 30 chicks thus far and some of our 2017 chicks returned to nest as adults in 2020 for the first time. We are excited to be receiving re-sights of our banded black skimmers from Florida every winter. Amelia Island, on the Atlantic coast of Florida, is a popular place for them to spend the winter along with a few other sites on that coast. We have also had a re-sight from Clam Pass on the gulf side of Florida.