Endangered piping plovers enjoy a baby boom this summer in Rockaway
There’s been a baby boom among Rockaway’s piping plovers.
Twelve nesting pairs of the endangered birds successfully raised about 25 fledglings this year — five times the 2013 amount.
The spike has left conservationists scratching their heads after only five chicks survived to fly south for the winter last year.
“There is a huge difference between last year and this year, but we can’t say for sure what allowed that to happen,” said city Park Ranger Brooke Skelly, who monitors the plump, sparrow-sized birds with three other team members.
The sand-colored, federally-protected piping plover — named for its plaintive, bell-like whistle — builds its nest in the sand near the shoreline every year from March until the end of August between Beach 38th St. and Beach 56th St.
The recent dredging along the beach to help build up the hurricane-ravaged shoreline could have given gulls and crows another source of food – sparing the plover chicks from predators.
“We did notice there was a huge population of gulls feeding on whatever they pulled out of the ocean,” said Skelly.
Protecting the plovers along the Eastern seaboard, including Rockaway, has drawn grumbles from some who resent seeing large sections of beach roped off and manpower dedicated to keeping watch over the birds.
The National Park Service monitors plovers on their stretch of beach on the western end of the peninsula.
Federal and state authorities mandate special accommodations for the plovers, which were almost driven into extinction decades ago.
“It’s just part of the whole fragile web of life,” said Don Riepe, who heads the northeast chapter of the American Littoral Society. “The more species we lose, the less diversity we have in our environment.”
In the late 1800s, plover feathers were used to decorate women’s hats. In more recent years, shoreline development destroyed the habitats suitable for the birds to breed.
There are now about 800 breeding pairs, including 200 in New York, according to the state Department of Conservation.
The tiny stout birds, which weigh between one and two ounces and are about five inches long, also fall prey to stray cats and rats.
Skelly leads a seasonal plover team of three: Nathan Green, Natalia Quinteros and Victor Yin. All have experience or have studied wildlife biology.
For eight hours, seven days a week they watch over the plovers, recording their activities and maintaining the fences that protect their breeding area.
They also explain the work to beachgoers who often wonder why the section between Beach 38 to Beach 56 is off limits.
But the plovers have fans too, who often ask team members for a status update as they pass on the boardwalk.
“I think we can all co-exist with a lot of knowledge and tolerance,” said Riepe. “There’s enough beach for everyone.”