Beach-nesting Birds

Black Skimmers nest on several beaches on the Rockaway Peninsula, in Queens. Photo: <a href="" target="_blank" >David Speiser</a>
Black Skimmers nest on several beaches on the Rockaway Peninsula, in Queens. Photo: David Speiser

Beach Nesting Birds

Each year, from April through August, thousands of birds nest on the bare sands of New York City beaches and inlets. Common and Least Terns, Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, and Piping Plovers—all of these species come to our city beaches to breed, as they have for millennia. The birds lay their eggs in shallow scrapes in the sand, sometimes lined with bits of shell and debris, placed above the high tide line in open, sandy areas with little to no vegetation. The eggs and chicks are perfectly camouflaged to match their sandy environment. Downy chicks that look like tiny fluff balls leave their nests soon after hatching—but stay on the beach for several weeks, learning from their parents, until they are old enough to fly and survive on their own.
Unfortunately, today these birds are competing for highly prized real estate. Nesting on the open beach is a challenge under the best of circumstances—weather can be harsh, predators roam, and storms or extreme tides can harm nests. When human beings vie for the same limited space and do not actively protect the vulnerable birds and their young, successful nesting can become impossible.

Beach-nesting birds are extremely sensitive to human disturbance. Eggs and chicks are camouflaged to resemble the sand and can easily be stepped on or run over and crushed. The birds see humans and their pets as predators; when a human or dog wanders too close to nesting sites, the adult birds leave the nest, exposing the eggs or chicks to extreme temperatures and predation by gulls and crows. Continued disturbance can lead to nest abandonment. And the trash humans leave behind does a lot of damage as well: garbage attracts animals such as gulls, foxes, and raccoons, which readily prey on beach-nesting birds and their young.
Several species of beach-nesting birds have shown alarming population declines in recent years. The Atlantic population of Piping Plover is federally Threatened, having declined to less than 2,000 pairs. The Black Skimmer population has declined by 87 percent since 1966, and now nests in only 3 colonies in New York State. (Learn more about the status of these species, as well as the Common Tern and American Oystercatcher, below.) Observed declines in the populations of beach-nesting bird species are all the more worrisome, as coastal nesting habitat is itself being gradually diminished by the rising sea levels of our warming world.
A Common Tern is measured before being fit with a geolocator tag. Common Terns are listed as Threatened in New York State. Photo: NYC Bird Alliance "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> A Common Tern is measured before being fit with a geolocator tag. Common Terns are listed as Threatened in New York State. Photo: NYC Bird Alliance

Monitoring, Banding Research, and Outreach

NYC Bird Alliance monitors several local populations of beach-nesting waterbirds in order to better understand declines in their populations, and to provide a sound scientific grounding as we advocate for further protections for them. We also conduct research using banding and migration tracking technologies to better understand both local and long-distance movements of these species. Read about our banding work in the species profiles below.

We use our research and expertise to inform local communities about the threats posed to vulnerable beach-nesting birds through our Share the Shore campaign. Through in-person events, messaging at beaches, and social media, Share the Shore unites the voices of scientists, birders, and beachgoers to help others learn about these birds and become engaged as their protectors. Learn more about our Share the Shore outreach. 

Get to Know the Beach-nesting Birds!

Click on each species below to see more photos and learn more.

Citations and Additional Resources

1)    Gochfeld, M. (1978b). Colony and nest site selection by Black Skimmers. Proc. Colonial Waterbird Group 1:78-90. 
Additional Sources for “Get to Know the Birds”
All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Birds of the World (Various Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. 

New York Breeding Bird Atlas III eBird data courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 - 2015. Version 2.07.2017 USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD