New Yorkers Want Their Beach Access. NYC’s Only Endangered Species Just Wants to Survive
Piping plovers in the Rockaways are struggling to recover, in large part due to human activity.
2:51 PM EDT on September 27, 2023
On a tranquil Saturday morning in early June, New York City Parks Department workers patrolling the Far Rockaway coastline encountered a disturbing scene.
Fenced structures surrounding two nests of the piping plover, an extremely rare shorebird that is New York City's only federally protected endangered species, had been bent ajar, and four eggs had disappeared. A set of footprints in the sand led toward one of the enclosures, a circular wire mesh and wood structure, and an imprint of the fence's pattern could be seen on the sand near one nest.
Parks officials alerted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency within the Department of the Interior tasked with overseeing the protection of endangered and threatened species. The City had installed infrared cameras near the nesting sites, but it's unclear if they captured anything. Nevertheless, federal officials determined the egg theft occurred between the morning of June 9 and June 10, and that humans were responsible.
The motivation for both the vandalism and theft seem obvious: For decades, the Parks Department has cordoned off a 20-block stretch of shoreline between Beach 57th and Beach 38th streets to protect nesting plovers and other migratory shorebirds during the summer, a move that has long rankled residents.
This most recent incident wasn't the first time a nest had been vandalized. In June of 2022, Parks Department wildlife unit workers discovered a dead plover and damage to several nests near Beach 57th Street. Nests belonging to another threatened bird species, the American oystercatcher, had also been ransacked. A month later, National Parks Service officials found an oystercatcher egg that had been smashed against the back of a beach sign in Breezy Point.
Since there are only 6,000 to 8,000 piping plovers left in the world, a slight fluctuation to their population could have lasting consequences. One month after the incident this summer, Fish and Wildlife offered $5,000 for any tips leading to the conviction of those responsible, and noted that the penalty for stealing a plover egg was a $25,000 fine and up to six months in prison.
While the announcement got the attention of the local newscasts, elected officials in Queens didn't address the assault on the plovers, or express concern for the future of the endangered bird. Instead, four days earlier, several had attended a press conference organized by the Edgemere Community Civic Association, criticizing the seasonal plover-related closures and demanding access to the beach.
As residents clutched signs reading "WHY CAN'T THE BIRDS SHARE THE BEACH WITH US," Public Advocate Jumaane Williams called the closures "arbitrary" and accused the City of depriving a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood access to its waterfront. Other officials proposed opening more pathways through the protected area, similar to the arrangement enjoyed on the western side of the peninsula by residents in Breezy Point and visitors to Fort Tilden.
As the plovers struggle to reproduce while real estate development on the coastline keeps growing, policymakers face a difficult choice: Are the beaches ultimately for the endangered birds, or for human New Yorkers?
Each spring, piping plovers migrate from as far as the Caribbean to northeastern coastal beaches to reproduce and raise their fledglings.
No one knows exactly how long they've flown into New York Harbor. Some paleontologists believe plovers survived the asteroid collision that wiped out dinosaur life 66 million years ago, but they weren't identified as a distinct species until the ornithologist George Ord named them in 1824. Since then, the small, cream and brown-colored shorebirds have been observed nesting on sandy berms from Nova Scotia through the Mid-Atlantic during the warmer months, while wintering in the southeast and the Gulf of Mexico (two other populations live in the Great Lakes region and the Dakotas).
In his 1865 book "Cape Cod," Henry David Thoreau wrote that a piping plover's "dreary peeps" encapsulated his impression of a beach. Three years later, one appeared in "Little Women," peeping to itself while scuttling toward Beth Marsh on a spring day that Jo took her ailing sister to the shore: "Dear little bird! See, Jo, how tame it is. I like the peeps better than the gulls: They are not so wild and handsome, but they seem happy, confiding little things."
Soon, the birds grew too popular for their own good. Unregulated hunting for their feathers and meat caused their population to shrink through the early 20th century. Piping plovers rebounded after the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, but real estate development and increased recreation on the Atlantic coast gradually eliminated the pristine stretches of coastline plovers need to feed and breed.
Fish and Wildlife offered guidance on how to manage beach habitats in order to safeguard the birds. That often meant erecting a fenced buffer over areas where a pair digs a shallow nest on the sand to keep out predators, barring unleashed dogs and vehicles, and closing off parts of the coastline between March and September.
The federal government set a goal of maintaining a five-year total of 2,000 piping plover breeding pairs throughout the Atlantic coastline, including 575 pairs in the New York and New Jersey region.
New England is the only region along the Atlantic coast that has consistently reported numbers above the federal government's goals. New York and New Jersey populations have only crossed that threshold twice since government agencies began tracking them in 1986, and more often they fall well below that mark. The plovers are not procreating fast enough.
In order for the population to recover over the long term, each pair needs to produce an average of 1.5 fledglings out of each nest every year. But the plovers' productivity rate—the number of young per breeding pair that hatch and leave the nest at the end of the breeding season—has surpassed that level in only three of the past 22 years. Last year, the rate was a measly 1.1 per nest in New York, according to data from the state Department of Environmental Conservation obtained in a Freedom of Information Request by Hell Gate.
Plovers nest across three parts of the Rockaways, which are all controlled by different entities: Fort Tilden and Breezy Point Tip, which once had one of the largest concentrations of plovers on the Atlantic, are overseen by the National Parks Service; Breezy Point Co-op, a privately-owned beach cooperative; and the NYC Parks Department-controlled public beachfront in Queens between Arverne and Far Rockaway.
The plovers on New York City's beaches are successfully reproducing at rates far below the rest of the state. Last year, there were 42 pairs of plovers in Queens, but only a dozen fledglings survived, per the DEC data. The pairs' productivity rate was a miniscule 0.21.
"That can lead to extinction," said José Ramírez-Garofalo, a Rutgers University ecologist who studies shorebirds. "This is why they're endangered and still endangered."
There are several factors contributing to the plovers' dry spell, among the most significant is habitat loss—long stretches of sandy beaches have shrunk over time, thanks to flooding, the growth of dense grasses, and extreme storms exacerbated by climate change.
Once plovers arrive and form their nests, they must avoid predators scouring the sand for food. Raccoons, feral cats, and gulls and crows that snatch eggs are their primary antagonists, but foxes, kestrels, ghost crabs, rats, and off-leash dogs can also chase and kill plovers or disturb their nests.
Plovers eat a variety of marine worms, crustaceans, and larvae in mudflats and sandbars on the shore's edge, but sometimes, there isn't enough food where they live. Competition from other shorebirds can stymie their foraging or force them further up the beach, making trips to the surfline more tiring.
And interaction with humans, whether it's deliberate acts of vandalism, driving vehicles over nests, or leaving food scraps and trash that attracts predators, can harm the birds. The federal parks in the Rockaways drew 566,000 visitors last year, and Rockaway Beach had 4.5 million visitors in 2023, parks officials said.
"On the most disturbed beaches, the chicks aren't getting strong enough," said Chris Allieri, the founder of the NYC Plover Project. "They're going to be a lot more susceptible to predation and dying of exhaustion because they can't get around easily."
The Plover Project is one of several nonprofits, including the Audubon Society and the American Littoral Society, whose volunteers work to restore habitats, monitor wildlife, and educate beachgoers about rare species in the Rockaways. This past summer, 250 Plover Project volunteers patrolled Fort Tilden, Jacob Riis Park, and the Rockaway Beach nesting area in Edgemere where several colonies of waterbirds—plovers, terns, and oystercatchers—have settled.
Still, all of the combined efforts of volunteers and government agencies haven't quite worked. Federal and City wildlife officials have tried relocating predators, but have been unsuccessful. And these agencies only have a few people surveilling the beach at night, when the plovers are most vulnerable to attacks. Enforcement prohibiting off-leash dogs and vehicles from driving on the beach between March to September has been lax.
"It's obviously a very complicated management program," said Ramírez-Garofalo. "They can't impose these draconian strategies and just completely shut the beaches. If they did, and removed the predators, there would be plenty of piping plover activity."
There's also a visible sense of anger towards the birds among some Rockaway residents. Beachgoers' reaction to the plovers on both ends of the peninsula have grown more hostile since the pandemic, according to some of the volunteer groups. Recently, Breezy Point Co-op residents told one wildlife volunteer he was "ruining the beach" by putting up fencing for plovers. (Calls to the Breezy Point Co-op were not returned.) In another instance, a community leader approached a different volunteer in Edgemere and asked whether the plovers "taste like chicken."
According to another wildlife volunteer, the confrontations have even spilled into Queens Community Board 14 meetings over this past year, where a few residents suggested the government planted the birds on the beach and could relocate them. (A community board official said they have not discussed moving any birds.)
The Plover Project's Allieri said he trains his volunteers in conflict de-escalation, but that isn't always enough.
"We have people cursing at us, yelling obscenities," he said. "Most of these folks could not identify a plover to save their lives, and they're believing misinformation and craziness that's out there."
Allieri added, "For us, the beach is a recreation, and there's plenty of it. For beach-nesting birds, it is literally survival. People don't seem to comprehend that, or think this is an extreme point of view."
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards remembers when he had to climb through rubble and weedy overgrowth just to get onto the beach in Far Rockaway.
Richards grew up in Ocean Village, a concrete Mitchell-Lama low-income compound built in the 1970s on the border of Arverne and Edgemere. The ocean was a salve for the area's predominantly Black and Latino residents. But the land between the neighborhood and the beachfront became so desolate and overgrown with weeds and garbage that stray dogs began roaming the area. Two days after Christmas in 2001, a pack of feral canines mauled a jogger on the boardwalk and nearly tore his arm off.
The Bloomberg administration's urban renewal plans, typified by the 2,300-unit apartment complex Arverne by the Sea, spurred the construction of thousands of new homes and an eight percent population rise that continued even after Superstorm Sandy's devastation. The number of new businesses tripled, too, but that growth has not occurred equally across the peninsula.
Neither has the management of the plovers been distributed equally. There are fewer restrictions in place in Breezy Point, a neighborhood of nearly 4,000 people that is 98 percent white, than in Edgemere, which has a population of 18,000 people, of whom 92 percent are Black or Latino. Yet in Edgemere, 20 blocks of beachfront remained seasonally closed. In the 1990s, the federal government sued the Breezy Point cooperative twice for failing to safeguard nesting plovers and allowing beach-cleaning vehicles to comb the site. They reached a compromise in 2000 and installed small buffers without closing off access to the shore.
Richards wants a similar deal in Edgemere. He believes the City's decision to bar people from the beach in the summer has hampered the area's economy and contributed to high unemployment.
"The beach on the western portion of the peninsula is an economic engine. When you look at the way they gate plovers in Breezy Point, there's no way around it, this is a question of the haves and the have-nots," Richards said. "This is blatant racism."
Richards insists that he likes birds. When he served as a city councilmember, he introduced legislation in 2015 compelling skyscrapers to dim their lights at night, in order to prevent migratory songbirds from colliding into their windows. As borough president, he signed off on the $44 million Arverne East development, which includes a 35-acre nature preserve and welcome center.
"They're cute! They're cute and fuzzy. But we're nature too," Richards said, before softening his stance a bit. "It's federal law, we have to protect the piping plovers. I get that. We shouldn't pit the birds versus the humans. Everybody should be able to fly."
Sonia Moise, who grew up in Far Rockaway, still remembers the first time she saw signs the City installed that read "endangered shorebirds" and noticed that several blocks were sectioned off.
"I thought it was going to be a temporary thing, my naiveté," she said. "They're birds."
Moise bought a home in Edgemere in 2006 and started the neighborhood's civic association three years ago, with the goal of attracting more businesses to the area and reopening the beachfront. She wants three out of the seven access points in the plovers' cordoned-off recovery area open to the public, even during the summer. Community Board 14, of which Moise is a member, requested a meeting with Parks Department officials to discuss her plan.
"Why should my summer of sunbathing or taking a dive into the water or putting my toe in the sand be neglected because of the bird sanctuary?" she said. "We can share the beach."
The pressure to open the closed sections of the beach will only increase. Thousands of new units of affordable housing are being developed in Arverne and Edgemere beyond the protected area.
For now, the status quo remains in place—as in previous years, the City removed fencing and allowed people back onto the beach after the plovers departed last month; by Labor Day, they had all flown south. How did the plovers do this summer on the City-managed stretch of the Rockaways? NYC Parks Department officials counted 17 piping plover pairs in 29 nests that produced 95 eggs, 28 chicks, and 6 fledglings, with a productivity rate of about 0.35—fewer fledglings than in the previous summer, and a rate that was once again far below the target. (Federal officials did not have plover numbers from this summer.)
Sunny Corrao, a public engagement associate with the Parks Department, wants New Yorkers to realize that having an endangered species living and breeding within the city is a special thing.
"I just hope it's a way for New Yorkers to not see the city as such as urban development. Wildlife is a part of the city, and we're a part of this environment too," she said. "We have to find a way to coexist."
Correction: The initial number of plover nests, eggs, chicks, fledglings, and the reproduction rate for this past summer, given to us by the Parks Department, were incorrect. These figures have been updated to reflect the correct amounts.
More from Hell Gate
An Oral History of SIN Club, The Coolest Venue on the Lower East Side for Six Months in 1983
From its adventurous booking policy to its quasi-legal status, "Safety In Numbers" was something special—and then the cops shut it down.
FDNY ‘Training’ Included Breaking This Guy’s Door Then Laughing About It
"This was not an emergency situation. They do not have the right to break open doors because they feel like it."
Trust Fund Kids, Crust Punks and a Neo-Nazi: Sean Price Williams on His Directorial Debut
Williams talks "The Sweet East," moving from cinematography to directing, and why he thinks movies made with union labor aren’t very fun.
‘We Are Taking Names of People Who Did Not Support Israel’: Dark Money Mobilizes to Oust NY Progressives
Political action committees backed by pro-Israel donors are ramping up efforts to oust NY progressives they see as being on the wrong side of the Israel-Hamas conflict.