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Protecting Connecticut’s vulnerable shorebirds takes a community effort

20220706Birds
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
A young American oystercatcher hops along pebbles, sand and shells at the water’s edge to keep up with an adult at Sandy Point Bird Sanctuary in West Haven, Connecticut, July 6, 2022.

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.”

20220706Birds
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Keeping their distance to avoid disturbing nearby nesting birds, Audubon bird conservation director Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe (left) and Audubon’s Beth Amendola peer through binoculars at Sandy Point Bird Sanctuary in West Haven, Connecticut, July 6, 2022.

Piping plovers are among the birds categorized as “threatened breeders” by the state and also federally threatened. Last year, there were only 60 nesting pairs of piping plovers in Connecticut.

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.

20220706Birds
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Litter rests in the sand next to a piping plover at Sandy Point Bird Sanctuary in West Haven, Connecticut, July 6, 2022. Audubon bird conservation director Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe said human encroachment and habitat loss due to climate change threaten many Connecticut shorebirds.

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?’”

20220706Birds
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
“I've only been an official volunteer for one year, but I have loved birds since forever. And it seemed like they needed some help," said volunteer Lorraine Inzerra, one of more than 100 people who help monitor Connecticut’s shorebirds.

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.

20220706Birds
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
A community effort to protect birds at the Sandy Point Bird Sanctuary in West Haven, Connecticut, includes signs drawn by young volunteers.

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.

20220706Birds
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Inbound with food for its young, a tern prepares to land at Sandy Point Bird Sanctuary.

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.

20220706Birds
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
A lone ship moves through Long Island Sound off Long Beach in Stratford, Connecticut, July 6, 2022. Cages with holes big enough to allow piping plovers to nest but too small for predators have been built along the seashore.

Michayla Savitt is a summer 2022 newsroom intern at Connecticut Public, and covers environment and health issues. When she’s not on the air, Michayla is finishing up her graduate degree at the CUNY School of Journalism, exploring New York City, and hanging out with her toothless cat.