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Piping plover population gains on Atlantic coast Quinquennial count shows 26.9% increase along Northeast coast

Piping plovers have been showing up in increasing numbers along the Atlantic coast.

The shore bird's classification as a threatened species has led to numerous wildlife programs to assist it during nesting. These programs range from signs warning beachgoers to stay away from nests to a campaign last year on Cape Cod to kill sea gulls that threatened the plovers.

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Figures by the International Piping Plover Census, run every five years, released recently show that the number of plovers on Atlantic beaches has increased by 26.9 percent. During a 10-day period in June 1996, the census counted 2,479 nesting plovers in an area stretching from Newfoundland to North Carolina.

Plovers also nest in the Great Lakes and the Great Plains, and the June total in all areas was 5,837.

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The increases in the Atlantic birds are the greatest, and much of that success is coming from New England.

"The birds in New England are doing well because they are intensively protected," said Anne Hecht, who specializes in plover management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sudbury, Mass.

However, aggressive management practices elsewhere are not showing similar results, and no one is quite sure why, says Charles Hebert, manager of the Trustom Pond Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown, R.I.

Trustom includes Moonstone Beach, once a mecca for nude sunbathing until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990 closed the beach to protect the plovers. Less dramatic efforts employed elsewhere on Rhode Island beaches include warning and educational signs, biologists who patrol beaches and warn beachgoers away from nests, and enclosures around nests in an effort to protect them from predators.

Hebert said most of the public appears receptive to these measures. But he added: "There will always be some people who disagree with restricting [beach] access to protect an endangered species."

But a backlash began on Cape Cod last year after 1,911 herring gulls and great black-backed gulls were poisoned by Fish and Wildlife. Efforts are under way to have the agency scrap a four-year campaign to limit the number of gulls and encourage larger populations of plovers and least tern.

The international census was conducted by 1,100 biologists and volunteers in 20 Great Lakes, Plains and Atlantic states and nine Canadian provinces.

A similar census was conducted last January in an area stretching from North Carolina to Mexico, where the plovers migrate each winter.

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Local officials said the results of the international census confirm local yearly counts.

The numbers are up in Rhode Island even though last year's nesting season at Trustom was disappointing due to low egg counts and nest abandonments.

"We have not been able to attribute it to any single thing," reported Hebert, although there are strong suspicions that last January's oil spill affected the plovers.

While the numbers are growing, they are still a long way from the populations of 200 years ago, when plovers were "a fairly common shore bird," according to Hecht.

By the late 19th century, both the restaurant and millinery trade trade

By the late 19th century, both the restaurant and millinery trade had devastated the numbers. Controls began in 1918, and by the mid-1940s the plovers had begun to rebound.

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But increased access and use of beaches after World War II finally prompted the federal government to declare plovers "threatened" in 1986.

Hecht also predicted that continued wildlife management efforts will be needed in the foreseeable future.

"The things we are doing are not something you do once, and then walk away from," she said. "While we have had some success, it's not yet time to quit and go home."

Pub Date: 1/12/97



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