‘Best year ever’ for plovers at Good Harbor Beach | News

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Efforts to protect piping plovers nesting at the popular Good Harbor Beach this summer paid off: Between two pairs nesting, there were seven eggs. Of those, six chicks hatched, and five chicks fledged.

“It’s our best year ever,” said Kim Smith, who heads up the group Piping Plover Ambassadors at the beach.

And the success here of the piping plovers — a threatened species — this summer revolved around the storyline of two handicapped shorebirds, a mom who had lost her foot but still successfully hatched a clutch of four eggs, and her chick dubbed “Hip Hop”, who had a lame right foot and was slow to develop.

There was no sign of the shorebirds during a visit to the beach on the morning of Sept. 8, but Smith spotted Hip Hop on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

The ambassadors are well aware that preserving piping plovers on one of Cape Ann’s busiest beaches pits the tiny shorebirds against those who simply want a day at the beach, but whose activities — from straying into protected areas or leaving trash behind — can threaten the nesting plovers. Areas of the beach are fenced off when the plovers arrive in March, and the city has banned dogs from the beach from April 1 to Sept. 30.

“We can all enjoy it,” Smith said of the beach. “We can all recreate on it and do all the things that we love to do, we just need to give the plovers some space.”

The issue is that while nesting sites can be roped off, and “exclosures” can be built around them to keep out predators, piping plovers chicks, which are about the size of a marshmallow, will start to forage on their own about an hour after they hatch and then head to the water to forage.

That’s why the ambassadors are so important, Smith said, in being able to talk to beachgoers about giving the plovers some space. The city’s animal control officers also play a crucial role in educating people about keeping dogs away from the nesting areas, Smith said.

Susan Pollack of Gloucester is one among about 18 Piping Plover Ambassadors. She said it’s important to look after the birds “because they are a threatened species and I think it’s just really critical that we do anything we can to protect them and that’s why it’s awesome that Kim has started getting all of us to work.”

Crucial to recovery

The issue is the plovers tend to come back to the same nesting site year after year, and a pair has been doing so since 2016.

Smith said there are approximately 8,000 piping plovers left in North America. Massachusetts, she said, is at the forefront of the plovers’ recovery with about 1,000 breeding pairs.

“The Piping Plover Ambassadors at Good Harbor Beach, led by Kim Smith, are an excellent example of how government and private citizens can work together to achieve conservation successes,” said Carolyn Mostello, coastal waterbird biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, in an email. “It is extremely difficult for plovers to successfully nest and raise young on crowded, recreational beaches without appropriate buffers from disturbance.”

“While the city manages the plovers’ habitat,” Mostello said, “the incredibly dedicated volunteer ambassadors keep track of the day-to-day activities of the birds and educate beachgoers on the birds’ current status and what is needed for them to successfully raise their young. Partnerships like these not only allow beaches to stay open to recreationists, but are also crucial to the recovery of the threatened Piping Plover population.”

Smith has put together a short film outlining the ambassadors’ efforts over the years to protect the nesting plovers (https://vimeo.com/735452303).

Hip Hop

Last year three chicks fledged. But it was also last year when mom’s foot became wrapped in monofilament and a small mass of seaweed. When the chicks were about two weeks old, she was nowhere to be found.

This year, mom returned six weeks later than normal with only a rounded stump for a foot. She managed to lay four eggs. Also, at the Salt Island end of the beach, a second pair hatched three chicks, Smith said.

At two weeks of age, Smith said Hip Hop stopped putting weight on his right foot.

“It was very sad to see because initially he wasn’t foraging really well and that’s why I think he became so developmentally behind,” Smith said. Hip Hop learned to fly by the time he was seven weeks old. Not long after, the family flew off. But Hip Hop stayed behind.

During a visit to the beach last week, the DPW was using equipment to rake the beach and there was no sign of Hip Hop. Smith was hopefully this meant he had finally migrated south. But then she spotted him on Tuesday.

“He’s looking good and feeding heartily!” she said. “There are still many other shorebirds at (Good Harbor Beach) including semipalmated plovers and sanderlings so hopefully, he won’t wait too long” to fly south.

Ethan Forman may be contacted at 978-675-2714,or at eforman@northofboston.com.

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