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Beach-Nesting Birds

Beach-Nesting Birds

Every spring, scores of Beach-Nesting Birds return to New Jersey’s shoreline. They have just a few months to set up territories, incubate nests, defend chicks and successfully produce the next generation. This is an especially critical task for New Jersey’s endangered species, the Piping plover, Least tern and Black skimmer. In addition, special concern species such as the American oystercatcher, Common tern, and occasionally Gull-billed tern and royal tern use the beachfront as nesting grounds.

The birds nest during the late spring and summer, coinciding with the tourist season at the shore. The conflict between the birds’ nesting needs and the public’s love affair with the shoreline present a constant challenge to Fish and Wildlife staff within the Endangered and Nongame Species Program. We work to protect the birds by delineating nesting areas with fencing, monitoring predator activity and educating the public. The race for space is on, and we invite you to explore the web pages linked below to see how these birds are faring in an ever-changing landscape.

Beach-Nesting Birds Brochure (pdf, 183kb)

Beach-Nesting Bird Management

For nearly four decades the NJDEP Fish and Wildlife’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) has focused considerable attention on the research, monitoring, protection, and management of three species of beach-nesting birds. Included in this group are the piping plover, the least tern and the black skimmer. All three species are listed as endangered by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. In addition, the piping plover is listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1986.

More recently (since 2003), ENSP has begun to focus on the American Oystercatcher, a species of special concern and regional priority. ENSP has partnered with organizations such as Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, The Wetlands Institute, and Rutgers University to identify threats to reproduction and determine best management practices to protect this beach nester.

Each of these species make their nests on beaches by scraping a shallow depression in the sand just above the high tide line (oystercatchers and skimmers also nest on back bay islands). Skimmers and terns nest in colonies ranging in size from a few to hundreds of birds, while piping plovers and oystercatchers are territorial and solitary nesters. All four species occasionally nest on the same beaches. The nesting habits and habitats of these species (and others) have placed them in jeopardy because human uses of beaches are often incompatible with successful nesting.

The factors contributing to the endangerment of these birds in New Jersey include loss of suitable nesting habitats to development and erosion, disturbance of nesting activities by beach-goers and their pets, municipal beach maintenance practices that can alter habitat conditions and disturb nesting activities, and excessively high levels of predation exacerbated by human activities.

ENSP is actively responsible for managing beach-nesting birds at 20-30 nesting areas. Nesting areas directly managed by ENSP in 2021 accounted for 57% of all known piping plover sites, 69% of all known least tern sites, and 100% of all known black skimmer sites.

These sites accounted for 30% of the state’s total known piping plover population, 71% of the state’s total known least tern population, and 100% of the state’s total known black skimmer populations. American oystercatcher percentages are difficult to estimate, since at this time ENSP and its partners primarily monitor the beach-nesting component of their territory and do not comprehensively track those that breed on marsh islands. In addition, ENSP has coordination responsibilities on all other state nesting sites including Gateway National Recreation Area – Sandy Hook Unit, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife RefugeCape May National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. Coast Guard – Loran Support Unit and The Nature Conservancy‘s South Cape May Meadows Migratory Bird Refuge. ENSP is also responsible for coordinating and compiling statewide piping plover monitoring information for reporting to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Starting in 2001, ENSP initiated an intern program, with Monmouth University, which provides students to assist us with stewardship and management efforts. ENSP started a similar intern program with Stockton University in 2019.

The following provides a synopsis of the Beach-Nesting Bird monitoring and management activities carried out by ENSP.


Starting in early April, all previously active nesting sites are checked several times a week to determine if there is any current nesting activity. At each site monitors search for signs indicating the presence of piping plovers, least terns, black skimmers, or American oystercatchers. Because of the highly changeable nature of coastal beach habitat and the existence of several long-term beach replenishment projects within the state, coastwide habitat assessments are also conducted at the beginning of each season to determine whether other suitable nesting habitat may require monitoring.

During the early portion of the nesting season ENSP biologists continue frequent visits to all sites that show signs of occupation by any of these four species. Those sites where monitors locate nests, colonies or territorial or courting beach-nesting birds are visited no less than three times per week to locate any new nests or expanding colonies. On these visits monitors observe nesting progress and the outcome of any nests or nesting pairs previously discovered.

Piping plover brood activity and movement is also closely monitored at each nest that successfully hatches. For each active nesting beach with piping plovers or American oystercatchers present, we determine the total number of nesting pairs present, the number of successful nests, and the total number of chicks fledged from each nesting pair.

Counts are conducted at beaches with active least tern or black skimmer colonies at least 1x/week in order to determine the total number of adults present, the total number of adults that appear to be incubating and the total number of chicks and fledged chicks present. Monitoring also includes assessing the causes of colony failure and noting other potential inimical factors, such as predators, human disturbance and use of off-road vehicles, occurring on the site.

Site Management

Fencing and Signs: ENSP staff typically fences eight to ten major nesting areas prior to the nesting season with assistance from Citizen Science volunteers, conservation organizations, community service groups or other volunteers. In those municipalities where management agreements have been developed, municipal employees (primarily from public works departments) are also involved with “pre-fencing” of their local nesting beaches. All other piping plover or American oystercatcher nests or least tern and black skimmer colonies are fenced as they are discovered. Fencing is increased as necessary to include expanding least tern and black skimmer colonies. Fencing consists of PVC pipe or steel posts and string, occasionally augmented with additional rows of polypropylene rope. All nesting areas are posted with “Area Closed” or other appropriate signs. In some cases, fencing and signage are also utilized to protect chick foraging areas. These “feeding corridors”, which are typically used on the busiest public beaches, are meant to reduce human disturbance on vulnerable young chicks by limiting active and/or ongoing recreational activities in the areas where they feed.

Patrolling: Every nesting site receives patrolling on weekends by ENSP staff (including seasonal staff), interns or trained WCC volunteers. Many sites also receive weekday patrols.

Predator Control: Predator exclosures are the primary technique employed by ENSP to reduce the impact of predators on piping plover nesting success. Typically, ENSP staff erects predator exclosures on anywhere from 40-60 plover nesting attempts each year. We also use electric fence around some exclosures to combat problems with some mammalian predators, primarily red fox, that have learned to target exclosures and dig under them. This can be a means of increasing the effectiveness of exclosures at some sites.
Beach Predator Management: Frequently Asked Questions (pdf, 235kb)

Municipal Coordination:

ENSP has also developed beach management plans with many municipalities that clarify responsibilities and provide detailed guidance to the municipalities in the management and protection of endangered beach-nesting birds within each town. Through these plans we aim to effect a progressive shift of specific beach-nesting bird management responsibilities to the municipalities, particularly for those aspects of management that protect birds from activities permitted, encouraged, sponsored, or performed by the municipalities.

Together, recreational beach use and municipal beach management activities create some of the most significant threats to nesting success. Consequently, major portions of ENSP’s management efforts are devoted to educational outreach to beach users and local officials and to developing cooperative relationships with municipal managers. To that end, ENSP staff meets frequently with local officials, including public works directors and supervisors, police, lifeguards, and others for trainings and relationship building. During the nesting season, local officials are kept appraised of nesting and management activities through weekly updates sent to all appropriate departments and staff.


Onsite educational outreach aimed at beach users includes one-on-one contact with the monitors/wardens, organized tours conducted by the monitors/wardens, placement of interpretive signs, and distribution of informational brochures. More generalized outreach activities that we conduct include staffing interpretive displays at festivals and events, giving talks, and producing press releases.


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Department of Environmental Protection
P. O. Box 420
Trenton, NJ 08625
Last Update: November 22nd, 2022