It is a sweltering day in June and the birds are chirping. I am working at the Rockaway beaches, located at the southeast tip of Brooklyn where the borough meets the Atlantic. To my right are the barrier island’s plant-speckled dunes that roll gracefully until they hit pavement. To my left is the clear water of the Atlantic lapping against the trash-ridden sand. However, I am not here to pick up trash, I am here for what is before me: the nesting site of the critically threatened piping plover.

The piping plover or Charadrius melodus, a small white bird with a silhouette akin to cotton balls on stilts, is federally-listed as threatened and New York state-listed as endangered. With a drastic loss in habitat due to development and increased beach user-ship in the past three decades, the bird’s ability to nest on Brooklyn’s beaches became nearly impossible.

Suburban life in the Rockaways was developed in the mid-1800s, but due to the challenge of hauling people through swamps into the islands, it wasn’t fully operational until 1869 when the first railroad was built.

The original towns and villages were established by poor Irish and Jewish immigrants who were attracted to the cheap and beautiful land. The supermarkets and smoke shops didn’t come until after the first modern railroad was built in 1956, which transported people from Manhattan and upstate New York to the area’s closest beach. This ushered a new era for the Rockaway peninsula.

With easy transportation, the land became known in New York as prime year-round real estate. In rushed the opportunistic developers selling beach side mansions for quadruple what they bought the land for. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers chose these beaches as their new homes, letting schools, rental homes, gas stations, and all-terrain vehicles take over the islands. This was the beginning of the piping plover’s decline.

rockway

Their population declined until the Rockaway nesting site was established in 1989 as a protected zone by the National Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Since then, crews like mine have been installing protective fencing around their nesting zones and monitoring their reproductive behavior in order to facilitate the species’ population growth.

During my time with the plovers, I worked underneath Doug Adamo, chief of the natural stewardship division at Gateway National Recreation Area. Adamo has been overseen the plover protection program for over 14 years.

“There was probably a really nice fore dune and secondary dune that was wiped out by development,” explained Adamo. “Now we just have the remnants of that. Luckily, it was 1972 when the park was created and the last of it was preserved from then on.”

Despite their effective function in the broader ecosystem, people rarely see beaches as diverse environments that serve as a home for a plethora of important birds, grasses, and insects that had established themselves long before humans arrived. Fore dunes, the first dunes from the sea, are the areas that plovers and a wide range of animals and vegetation inhabit. The first three rows of dunes are covered in beach grass, cord grass, sand wort, and sea rocket. Their roots lace together loose grains of sand and cement the dunes in place, which are extremely sensitive to human foot trampling. Sand dunes must be stabilized by this vegetation as they provide the first barrier against impacts of storms and floods. This will become increasingly important as ocean levels rise and test our ecological defenses in the next fifty years.