July 27, 2015

Piping plover fledging plummets,
sea turtle nests skyrocket


The number of fledged piping plover chicks has plummeted to two for the 2015 nesting season in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, while the number of sea turtle nests is on track to perhaps surpass the record of 254 in 2013.

Even though the piping plover nesting season has ended and new buffer rules went into effect in June, Cape Point remains closed to pedestrians and vehicles because of American oystercatcher chicks on the beach south of Ramp 44, close to the Point.

According to Michelle Havens, the seashore's chief of natural resources, 16 pairs of piping plovers nested on the seashore this year.  The plovers produced 17 nests, according to the park's resource management field summary -- one on Bodie Island, five at Cape Point, two on South Beach in Frisco, three on north Ocracoke and six on Ocracoke's South Point.

Only two of the chicks that hatched from the nests survived to fledge, Havens confirmed. That's the lowest number since 2004 when there were no chicks that survived.  It's far below the seashore's record number of 15 in 2010. 

The number of fledged chicks has dwindled each year since 2010 -- only five fledged last year.

"We are in a down cycle," Havens said of this year's plover numbers.

Many factors -- including food supply, weather, and predators -- influence piping plover nesting success, she said, though it's believed that most of the plover hatchlings in the seashore have been lost to predation.

Predator management currently and in the past, she said, has focused on mammals, but this year, there is at least anecdotal evidence from biotechnicians who monitor the nesting birds that avian predators, especially crows, may be playing a bigger role than had been thought.

So far this year, 25 pairs of American oystercatchers have produced seven fledged chicks in the seashore, about on par with the activity of the last few years. As of last week, there were still six active broods of chicks in the seashore.  If any of them fledge, the year's total fledged chicks will be an increase over last year when 27 pairs of oystercatchers produced seven chicks that survived.

Three of the broods still active last week were in the Cape Point area. One chick from each of two nests remained, while there were two chicks on the ground from the third nest.

While the new buffer rules allow for corridors around nests in some instances, the buffer distance of 200 meters remains in place for unfledged chicks and will keep the area closed until at least mid-August. Seashore biologists continue to monitor the situation, Havens said, and are looking for ways to open a pedestrian corridor sooner.

Least tern chicks are also on the ground in the Cape Point area, but she said they are far enough back on the beach to perhaps allow for a pedestrian corridor.

All pre-nesting closures for shorebirds in the seashore will be removed, as planned, on Friday, July 31, Havens said.

Meanwhile, the new buffer rules have already been used to allow for pedestrian and ORV access in front of a turtle nest that was close to hatching near Ramp 38 north of Avon.

The new buffers that allow the Park Service to manage access in front of turtle nests close to the dunes will have the biggest impact on increased public access by both ORVs and pedestrians later this summer and into the fall  -- especially because an unusually large number of nest have been laid already this year.

As of this week, Havens said there are 241 sea turtles nests on seashore beaches.

"That's 13 away from the record, with plenty of time to go," she said.

According to news reports, sea turtle nest numbers are also nearing records in other areas on the southeast coast.

Last year, there were only 124 sea turtle nests in the seashore -- down from the record 254 in 2013 and 222 in 2012.

Sea turtle nests usually hatch in 60-62 days, though they are "expanded" down to the ocean at about 50 days.  To expand the nests, the park erects filter fencing from the nest to the ocean that closes access to both ORVs and pedestrians. If the nest is close enough to the dune to prevent an ORV corridor behind it, the expansion can prevent access to sections of beach that are open to vehicles.

To use the new corridors in front of turtle nests about to hatch, the park must manage the area with increased monitoring and performing such tasks as raking the beach, removing obstacles between the nest and the ocean, and erecting and taking down signs.

Havens said the park service is seeking "nest maintenance" volunteers. Volunteers are needed from early August until Nov. 1.  A minimum commitment of two weeks is required and work hours are mainly from 7:30 until 10 p.m. RV pads and hookups in the park may be available to volunteers. For more information on the duties or to volunteer, go to www.nps.gov.

The Park Service is also offering the public an opportunity to watch as seashore personnel excavate sea turtle nests that have already hatched to count eggs and rescue any hatchlings that may still be alive. You can call the turtle nest excavation program hotline at 252-475-9629 to find out when and where a program is being offered.


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