With guidance from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, DEM is mobilizing volunteers to protect the threatened, migratory birds’ nest until the eggs hatch. DEM is advising people to expect ‘plover-flow’ traffic at Roger Wheeler State Beach in the weeks ahead.

A pair of piping plovers has chosen an unlikely spot to make a nest: a strip of vegetation sprouting from a crack in the parking lot at Roger Wheeler State Beach in Narragansett. With guidance from its federal partner, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is mobilizing resources to protect the plovers and their nest and – if the chicks survive upon hatching – provide a safe passage to the beach about 100 yards away.

Protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the small sand-colored shorebirds breed on Atlantic beaches from Newfoundland and southeastern Quebec to North Carolina.

“With fewer than 4,000 piping plovers on the Atlantic coast, each one makes a difference, and we’re excited to see one of the marvels of nature unfolding at our state beach,” said DEM Director Janet Coit. “Working with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, DEM will do everything we can to protect these plovers and give the nest its best chance at hatching. Because this will require many logistics and reduce the number of parking spots in the lot, however, we ask for beach-goers’ patience and understanding in the weeks ahead.”

“While this is not a typical nesting site, piping plovers have been known to nest at Roger Wheeler State Beach in the past 10 years,” said Jennifer D. White, Ph.D., USFWS Wildlife Biologist and Piping Plover Coordinator. “Since becoming a protected species in 1986 and thanks to the hard work of volunteers, private land owners, government, and non-government organizations, plover numbers in Rhode Island have increased from less than 20 pairs in the 1980s to just under 100 pairs in the last few years. With the right protections in place and some luck, we hope this pair of plovers succeeds at hatching their nest and adding to the local population.”

The USFWS-DEM site protection plan calls for using black plastic silt fencing (often used in erosion control) to create the walls of a protected corridor from the nest through the parking lot to the dune. Volunteers coordinated by USFWS will sprinkle sand onto the asphalt to entice the nestlings, once hatched, to walk to the better foraging habitat that the beach provides. This sheltered walk could take chicks an hour or longer, but might take much less, according to biologists. There will be signage and volunteers directing car and pedestrian traffic to avoid the roped-off areas in the parking lot.

Piping plovers were common along the Atlantic Coast during much of the 19th century, but commercial hunting for feathers to decorate hats nearly wiped them out by the early 20th century, according to USFWS literature. “Intensive protection has helped the population more than double in the last 20 years, but the most recent surveys still place the Atlantic population at fewer than 2,000 pairs,” states USFWS literature. There are slightly fewer than 100 pairs in Rhode Island, according to the most recent survey.

“People and wildlife can share the beach – and we’re hoping that Rhode Islanders, out-of-state patrons, and these piping plovers can share beach parking spots too,” said Coit.