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Bird watchers keep eye out for piping plovers

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF FILE 2010

A piping plover, one of an endangered species, on the shore at Plymouth Beach.

In what may be another unexpected result of an unusually warm winter and spring, bird experts are waiting to see whether the population of piping plovers is migrating back to the area earlier than usual.

“It’s a little too soon to tell,’’ said Ellen Jedrey, assistant director of the Massachusetts Audubon Coastal Waterbird Program. “There are a number of birds already barred up and courting.’’

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Several groups, including the Audubon Society, have begun to put up fences to protect the nests, but Jedrey said that was not any earlier than usual.

“We’re preparing as we normally do,’’ she said. The earliest nest date ever recorded was April 13, and Jedrey said it is possible for that record to be broken this year since she expects the first nest to pop up within two weeks.

However, these birds may just be outliers among the federally threatened species. “It can be easy to get excited when we have early reports of birds,’’ she said.

Paul Fulcher, parks and beaches superintendent of the Cape Cod town of Orleans, said he is confident this year will be documented as the earliest return of the small coastal bird.

“The two weeks of warm weather brought them right up the East Coast,’’ he said.

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He said he is also seeing activity in the local population, but said the birds might not lay eggs just yet.

Fulcher added that the earlier the eggs are laid, the more productive the population will be this year. There is less foot traffic earlier in the summer, and high temperatures can result in higher mortality rates, he said.

David Brownlie, manager of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge of Chatham, said they are also seeing piping plovers two to three weeks early. However, that may be because researchers are only able to observe the birds when the weather is agreeable.

“Our presence on the island is hit or miss,’’ he said. “Sometimes the birds can arrive before we know.’’

Brownlie said that if a bad storm hits the region over the next few weeks it would hurt the population. On the other hand, he said, the sooner the birds lay eggs on the beach, the safer the nests will be from foot traffic.

Scott Melvin, senior zoologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, worried about the effects of early migration. If the piping plovers arrive before small invertebrates such as sand fleas, tiny marine worms, and nematodes that make up their diet, there would be problems, he said.

Melvin said it is possible that because the piping plover population has been increasing over the years, the earlier birds may just be a sign of more outliers than normal. But it will be a while until researchers have concrete evidence that the bulk of the birds came early.

Jedrey said that in a month or two researchers will compile data collected and see when the population peaked and then compare that information with the peaks from past years.

Alli Knothe can be reached at aknothe@globe.com.

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