Protecting Connecticut’s vulnerable shorebirds takes a community effort
On a slice of West Haven’s shoreline is a beach. But not the regular kind — here, people come to observe birds, not pitch umbrellas.
Every year, conservationists and volunteers have banded together to protect migratory birds that rely on Connecticut’s beaches to nest and lay eggs. It’s crucial habitat that is under threat from rising sea levels, worsening storms due to climate change, and disturbance from people.
Which means shorebirds like the piping plover must be viewed from a distance.
“So it kind of gave like an alarm peep as we got closer,” Beth Amendola explained. She’s the Audubon Connecticut coastal program coordinator. “And that just lets the chicks that are out in this mudflat area here — there’s about three or four I just saw — know that there could be potential danger coming by.”
Amendola said human disturbance is a major threat to the successful breeding of migratory birds like the piping plovers, least terns and American oystercatchers. That includes getting too close to birds, which can lead a bird off its nest, or leaving garbage on the beach — both make the nest prone to predators.
Audubon bird conservation director Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe said that isn’t the only thing threatening the survival of shorebirds.
“There are threats that are more, well, I would say natural, like sea level rise and coastal storms,” she said.
Storms are worsening due to climate change. They can wash out nests, forcing the birds to start over. And the later that birds nest in the season, the less successful they are, Amendola said.
“They’re really running out of time to really raise the chicks, teach them how to find food, before migration,” she said. “And then also there are more people on the beaches.”
Birds will nest up to three times during the summer. Folsom-O’Keefe said that to prevent people from getting too close, string fencing has been placed around the areas birds have chosen to nest.
“If we can give them 100 feet of space, then they’re going to be able to put their attention towards raising their chicks, making sure they are able to forage and find them food, providing them the protection they need from the elements and predators,” she said. “And not necessarily be focusing on: ‘What is this human that is walking towards me?’”
Another component of the coastal stewardship program comes in the form of summer “wildlife guards,” who are local young people. While half the crew tallies population numbers for Audubon, the other half educates people entering the bird sanctuary.
Samiyah Sutherland, 19, is from West Haven and is a member of the program.
“Every time I see a chick I get so excited,” she said. “And then when I see several chicks in one like, in one area, it's like there’s a whole family here. I love seeing them thrive."
Efforts to protect the nesting shorebirds continue 20 miles down the coast at Long Beach in Stratford. On a Wednesday afternoon, the small shell-lined beach is sprinkled with a dozen people. Some sunbathing, others fishing. The area is calm, just how the birds like it.
Volunteers take shifts monitoring the bird’s nesting areas, including Lorraine Inzerra, who recently retired. She carries a notepad and binoculars for the task.
“I've only been an official volunteer for one year, but I have loved birds since forever,” Inzerra said. “And it seemed like they needed some help.”
Audubon Connecticut has a record 150 volunteers helping the stewardship effort this year. Its coastal stewardship program launched in 2011. Along the Long Island Sound, other conservation groups and government agencies are involved in bird protection efforts through the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds partnership.
What’s new this year is that Long Beach is one of two areas Audubon Connecticut is studying to determine whether reducing human disturbance can help birds breed easier.
The effort harks back to the outcome of pandemic closures in 2020. Folsom-O’Keefe explained that when beaches closed down completely, or closed to everybody except local residents, they saw a surprising result.
“At those beaches the amount of disturbance was actually reduced — and we saw success in areas where we don’t normally see success because there was reduced disturbance,” she said.
On the flip side, Amendola noted there were higher rates of disturbance to birds on the beaches open in 2020 than previous years. There were also fewer staff and volunteers. For the piping plovers, that meant the lowest nesting success in the last 20 years.
Many people get invested in the birds, Amendola added.
“You know, you get attached to them, you see the cute little chicks, and it’s sad and upsetting when they don’t make it,” she said. “But quite a few do, and that’s why we’re out here.”
Folsom-O’Keefe said the hope is that their work can lead to greater understanding from the public.
“If more and more people over the years are able to sort of just understand the threats these birds face, those little things that they can do to help out can potentially, in the end, go a long way,” she said.
Most of the young beach birds and their parents will migrate south by September. But with help from the coastal stewardship program, they will likely be back next year to nest along the shore.