A Department of Environmental Protection report shows the breeding population of the piping plover is on the decline in some Jersey Shore counties.

Last year, just 103 breeding pairs were counted in the state, a 10% decrease from the previous count.

It's not clear why there is such a decline, said Christina Davis, environmental specialist with the Endangered and Non-Game Species Program. But in the past few years, there have been wildly fluctuating populations. Some years there are relatively high productivity, which means the high number of chicks surviving, so it would be expected that the population would increase. That's happening some years, but declining in others.

She said of the 103 breeding pairs found last year, 48 were in Monmouth County, 40 specifically in Sandy Hook. There's been a stable, increasing population of piping plovers in Ocean County. Davis said that's probably due to Holgate and Little Beach, which are part of the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Davis said Superstorm Sandy was dangerous to infrastructure but created and amazing habitat for birds and endangered species to survive and thrive.

Cape May County has also been a problem for piping plovers. There used to be 40-plus pairs of them in the county. This year, there are only seven.

Piping plovers love a lot of change in their system and they respond well to storm conditions. But Davis said that is not the way the beach is managed these days and development has cut into their habitat.

The vast majority of piping plovers are nesting in natural areas at federal properties on Sandy Hook and at the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

"So our goal is to try and shift it back to having a more evenly distributed population across the state. We are doing that through restoration projects. We have a really big project that took place at Barnegat Light to restore the habitat there that's been successful," said Davis.

People need to pay attention when they're on the beaches. Pay attention to fenced-in areas. Don't allow dogs on the beach or drive cars in closed-off areas.

Davis said most people have no idea that these birds are out there and are not deliberately trying to harm wildlife. She said piping plovers are small and camouflaged and often difficult to see. They are often isolated and are territorial.

Piping plovers are pale with a black neck band and an orange bill and some black on their forehead. Overall, they are a grayish brown and blend in with the dunes.

Davis said the environmental officials are out scouring the beaches. Starting in April, they will travel the coast looking for piping plovers and protecting their nesting habitats. If beachgoers see that fencing and signs saying "Area Closed. There Are Birds Here," that is an indication that piping plovers are around.

Piping Plovers may not be curing cancer but they are part of a healthy beach ecosystem, which impacts people. Having piping plovers as part of that environment is critical to maintaining that ecosystem and keeping everything in tact, said Davis.

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