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A Watchful Eye Protects the Piping Plover
Photo Credit: Don Freiday / USFWS
Like many other summer-time beach goers, Judy Besancon enjoys the views, smells, and feel of the ocean waters and sandy dunes. But unlike other beachgoers, her mission at the beach this day is education.
For 11 years, Besancon has helped protect threatened piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) as a volunteer plover warden at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Mass. Each Sunday evening, Besancon sits on the Newbury beach for four hours, working a weekend shift that is typically hard to fill. She provides necessary and valuable information, as well as helping deter threats from (often well-intentioned) people or their dogs.
The Service, which leads the recovery of the federally threatened piping plover along the Atlantic coast, depends on volunteers like Besancon for successful plover conservation and protection.
"Plover wardens are extremely critical in helping protect nesting plovers on closed beaches," says Jean Adams, a visitor services specialist at the refuge. "No amount of closed area signs has been as effective as having a live person on the beach."
Plover wardens volunteer from April through mid-August, which is the time during which these rare shorebirds return to the coast, find a nesting area, lay eggs and eventually fledge their young. Without wardens, disturbance would greatly increase, which could prevent plovers from nesting or cause them to abandon their nests or chicks.
These goodwill ambassadors annually connect with more than 2,000 refuge visitors, positively influencing attitudes and actions toward endangered species conservation. Their messages to beachgoers cover topics from the value and importance of protecting plovers to general information about the Service and its National Wildlife Refuge System.
Efforts by plover wardens and biologists have paid off. Populations have increased over the years since plovers first gained Endangered Species Act protection in 1985. Numbers vary year to year depending on weather conditions and other outside factors like predation and food availability, but on average, about 12 pairs of plovers nest on the refuge's sandy shores. Last year brought 27 and this year a banner 32 pairs.
"It has been a thrill this year to have so many nesting pairs of plovers at Parker River and to know part of the reason is the protection I am able to provide," says Besancon. "We can't control loss of nests due to weather but we can limit human access to nesting and feeding areas and control practices that attract predators."
When Besancon caught her first close-up of a plover chick, it was a moment that brightened the cold day and lonely shift on the beach.
"It was the first time I had actually seen a chick up close, and it made me feel like my time at the beach really does make a difference in plover conservation efforts," she says.
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