The arrival of spring on the North Fork brings with it the return of the piping plover — a small, migratory shorebird with a sandy-colored body and yellowish-orange legs. Starting in April and lasting through August, these little birds will make their home on the flat, open areas of our local beaches, setting up their nests close to the shoreline.
While their return is an annual occurrence, it’s one that is increasingly threatened by human infrastructure and climate change. With their nests on beaches and sandbars, these NYS endangered birds are susceptible to human activities, such as coastal development, beach grooming, and recreational activities. In 2022, the population of piping plovers was roughly about 8,000 worldwide and 150 in New York State, making their presence on North Fork beaches even more vital.
“They’re a tiny little bird, but it’s sort of indicative of the loss of habitat on our shorelines that we should all be concerned about,” said Peggy Lauber, President of the North Fork Audubon Society (NFAS). “There’s something wrong when less and less birds are able to live and breathe out here.”
Founded in 1971, NFAS has been spearheading efforts to protect and monitor these species, as well as other shorebirds including least terns, common terns, American oystercatchers, and great black-backed gulls. As beachgoers return to the North Fork’s sandy shores this summer, they may notice restricted area signs blocking off about a dozen nesting sites across the Town of Southold, which were installed by NFAS volunteers. The signs are largely symbolic, serving as a reminder of the shorebirds’ presence. As these birds are not bound to restricted areas and often leave to forage for food, Lauber urges that beachgoers remain vigilant.
“The number one thing is that people are just aware to not let your dogs off their leash and respect the fencing,” Lauber said. Doing so will help to minimize confrontation, as piping plovers are masters of camouflage and are easy to miss if dog owners aren’t attentive while walking their pets along the shore. Those interested in supporting the nesting season can also sign up to become volunteers. Members of NFAS are responsible for protecting the sites and may help by replacing fencing after a storm, adding more if new nests emerge, or monitoring shorebird activity.
As spring is the time when thousands of birds migrate to the North Fork, Lauber also encourages locals to use an app called eBird to track and share their sightings to further science and conservation efforts.
“The data is very important because [scientists] can make a lot of predictions based on that data,” she explained. “They can see where birds are declining, and it helps them to identify birds that need to be declared as endangered.”
Each week, the society sponsors two bird walks at nature preserves around the North Fork that are led by guest birders. “We get the opportunity to see a lot of beautiful birds, especially at this time of year,” said Lauber. “We’re so blessed because we are part of that North Atlantic Flyway, where they pass through.”