This article was originally published on NorthJersey.com on February 10, 2014, and was written by James O’Neill. View the original article here.
In the past five years, more than 35 non-profits and government agencies from Texas to New England have collaborated to stabilize the population of the American oystercatcher, a shore bird with a distinctive flat orange bill it deftly wields to pry open shellfish.
The birds primarily nest on the open, sandy beaches of barrier islands, which makes them vulnerable to human disturbance, attacks from predators and sea level rise.
To protect the species, small sections of beach from Sandy Hook to Cape May have been roped off and posted with signs from April through August. Similar efforts are under way in other coastal states.
The conservation efforts have begun to pay off. There are now about 11,300 oystercatchers along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts — up slightly from the 10,800 estimated just a few years ago.
“That’s a huge victory. We weren’t expecting that kind of increase,” said Shiloh Schulte, a scientist at the nonprofit Manomet Center in coastal Massachusetts and coordinator of the American Oystercatcher Working Group, which has spearheaded the conservation efforts.
Erica Nol, an expert on the species at Trent University in Ontario, and cofounder of the working group, agreed. “It’s been a pretty fantastic example of collaborative science over a large geographical area,” Nol said.
Still, the numbers remain low enough for New Jersey to keep oystercatchers listed as a “species of concern” — one step from threatened and two steps from endangered.
The American oystercatcher still has a “relatively small population, and is vulnerable to sudden declines if not actively managed, given its reliance on the heavily populated coastal zone,” said Todd Pover, beach nesting bird project manager with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.
New Jersey has about 15 percent of all breeding American oystercatchers, which means it is among the most important locations to implement programs that help the species recover, experts say. About 400 breeding pairs dot New Jersey’s barrier island beaches each summer from Sandy Hook to Cape May, Pover said.
In addition, up to 1,000 oystercatchers winter in New Jersey. Winter roost flocks can be seen around inlets, such as Absecon in Atlantic County and Hereford Inlet, near Stone Harbor in Cape May County.
To collect more data on the bird, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, along with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation, has color-banded more than 300 oystercatchers in New Jersey since 2004; some have later been spotted in the Carolinas and Florida.
When humans get close during nesting season, the birds often fly off their nests, which can leave eggs or chicks vulnerable to predators as well as at risk of being damaged by the sun’s heat.
Perhaps as a result, the birds “appear to be moving into salt marsh habitat in greater numbers in New Jersey in response to the high levels of human disturbance on barrier beaches,” Thomas Virzi, a Rutgers University researcher, wrote in a 2010 academic paper on the species. He cautioned that these marshes could act as “ecological traps,” because the birds, in fleeing human activity, are settling in areas that regularly flood the nests, creating a whole new problem.