Factors Affecting Piping Plover Hatching Success on Long Island, New York

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Low hatching success may limit progress towards reaching productivity goals for Atlantic Coast piping plover (Charadrius melodus) recovery, despite management strategies to protect eggs from predators and decrease human disturbance of birds on nests. We measured piping plover hatching success on Eastern Long Island beaches and identified the major causes of egg failure to better understand why eggs that were otherwise intact (not depredated or destroyed by tidal flooding) failed to hatch. We documented egg and nest fates, dissected contents of unhatched eggs to determine viability, and recorded human and predator activity near a subset of plover nests on Suffolk County Parks properties. The low hatching success we recorded (0.60) in 2006 and 2007 would require higher chick survival rates than are typically observed for piping plovers to meet recovery targets for productivity. Few eggs showed signs of poor viability and overall egg hatchability was comparable to other ground nesting birds. Most egg failure was due to either depredation at unexclosed nests or nest abandonment by adults. The best predictor of nest abandonment was the maximum number of red fox tracks (Vulpes vulpes) counted on nearby transects (β = −1.16, 95% CI: −2.0 to −0.3) and we found evidence that plovers abandoned eggs in response to predation risk (e.g., a fox circling a nest exclosure). Adults from abandoned nests may have deserted eggs or been depredated. In either case, intact and viable eggs were abandoned. Nest abandonment was not related to human activity near nests, which were buffered from human disturbance by symbolic string fencing. Our results suggest that depredation and nest abandonment (e.g., desertion or death of adults) due to predator disturbance, not human disturbance or poor egg viability, contributed to the low hatching success we recorded. Active predator removal in addition to modification of predator exclosure use and design may be necessary to prevent direct (egg depredation) and indirect (nest abandonment) negative effects of predators on hatching success.