Coastal Waterbird Program at Felix Neck

Piping plover with chicks © John Van de Graaff
© John Van de Graaff

Challenges for Shorebirds

American Oystercatchers, Common and Least Terns, and Piping Plovers could easily be missed by any beach-goer. These birds nest in small depressions in the sand, blending easily into their environment, which makes them almost impossible to see.

Piping Plovers are listed as a "threatened" species under the Federal and Massachusetts Endangered Species Acts (MESA). Least Terns are listed as a species of ”special concern” under MESA, and American Oystercatchers are protected by state and federal law. As a result, certain legal protections are afforded to prevent harm to these species caused by direct or indirect human activity.

But ground-nesting birds are faced with many challenges. Primary predators of these shorebirds include American Crow, skunk, and raccoon. Human disturbance and domestic dogs and cats are also a threat to their survival. Though adult pairs have increased throughout the years, the productivity of these species is still low. Protecting nesting habitat from predators and disturbance is crucial to their breeding success.

Protecting Remaining Populations

Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program (CWP) was first established in 1986 in response to a decline in Piping Plover and tern populations in Massachusetts. Through the CWP and Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Mass Audubon implemented a program to assist landowners to help limit or avoid unintended harm to these species and help these birds successfully breed and rear their young.

Now, in collaboration with state and federal authorities, Mass Audubon helps protect 30-60% of the states breeding terns, 40-50% of its Piping Plover population, and approximately 20% of its American Oystercatcher population. Our efforts are vital to maintaining populations of these vulnerable beach-nesting species. 

The launch of the CWP helped increase the number of Piping Plovers from 135 pairs in 1986 to 650 pairs in 2011, which is approximately 1/3 of the entire Atlantic Coast population. In the 1800s, American Oystercatchers completely disappeared from the Northeast primarily due to hunting. With increased protection, Oystercatchers began to expand their territory.  In 1969, a pair nested on Martha’s Vineyard, establishing the first confirmed breeding record for the state!

Today, you can see Oystercatchers, terns, and Piping Plovers at many beaches on Martha’s Vineyard.

Get Involved 

A group of Mass Audubon staff and volunteers dedicate their time to help protect these threatened and endangered shorebirds through beach management, science-based conservation, policy development, and education. Taking the time to learn about shorebirds’ fragile life history and habitats allows a whole new understanding of the struggles they face and why protection is so important.

Become a Community Science Volunteer

Spotlight: CWP Staff & Volunteers

Emily Saber of the Coastal Waterbird Program

When summer arrives, so have our favorite shorebirds! While many of us are familiar with the CWP, far fewer are aware of the individuals who work tirelessly to monitor and conserve our local shorebird populations. We sat down with shorebird monitor Emily Saber to talk a bit our CWP at Felix Neck and the people behind it.

What brought you to Felix Neck and got you interested in monitoring rare and endangered shorebird species?

I am from Massachusetts and spent some time in the summer here growing up, so I knew I would enjoy living on Martha's Vineyard. I have been particularly interested in avian ecology since completing my wildlife biology degree; the diversity of birds fascinates me. That coupled with my interest in the dynamics of island ecology made me eager to apply for a position here!

How many interns and volunteers assist with the Coastal Waterbird Program?

This summer we have two interns and three volunteers assisting with the Coastal Waterbird Program.

How does having the help of these individuals impact the program as a whole?

Having these individuals contribute to the program has such a positive impact as a whole. It gets people who are interested in these birds the opportunity to study them and get to know their behaviors. It also helps cover more ground in the program timewise, and with shorebirds time is of the essence. Without these individuals, this program would not run as smoothly as it does!

What are other benefits of our intern program that expand beyond shorebird monitoring?

The CWP program is a great way for interns to get hands-on experience out in the field and to assist with data collection that can apply to a range of environmental studies. Interns get time to learn the ins and outs of the wildlife sanctuary here at Felix Neck and to help with other initiatives such as the Living Shoreline Restoration Project!