March 14, 2018
By: Chris Bennett, Environmental Stewardship Program Manager at Delaware State Parks
Every year, like clockwork, on the last day of February DNREC staff from the Divisions of Parks and Recreation and Fish and Wildlife erect a flimsy “fence” of twine and plastic pipe, on either side of the point at Cape Henlopen State Park. From the first day of March to the last day of September the point of the Cape is closed to the public. Within the next few weeks small sand-colored shorebirds called Piping Plovers arrive from the southeast coast of the United States to take up residence in the people-free zone at Cape Henlopen. Pairs of Plovers stake a claim to a portion of the dunes on the point and defend their territories from other pairs. Eventually they scrape a shallow dent in the sand with their bellies and feet and the female lays a clutch of four tiny sand colored eggs. If the eggs are not poached by foxes, crows, gulls or other nest predators, tiny cotton-ball-sized chicks hatch after 25 to 31 days of incubation by the adults. The downy sand-colored chicks are up and about hours after hatching, following their parents in search of insects and other tiny animals they peck from the sand’s surface. The chicks must elude predators for about another month, before they are able to fly.
In the 1960s and 70s up to 20 pairs of Piping Plovers nested at the point at Cape Henlopen. By the early 1990s, when the decision was made to close the point to people during the summer, that number had dropped to 3 pairs. Hundreds of Least and Common Terns and dozens of Black Skimmers also once nested at the point. Common Terns and Black Skimmers no longer nest there. After being absent for more than 20 years, Least Terns once again nest at the point in small numbers each summer, though their eggs and chicks are usually gobbled up by predators.
After a series of storms flattened the dunes in front of Gordons Pond in the late 1990s, creating excellent beach nester habitat, Piping Plovers began nesting there as well as at the Point. A section of beach is closed for beachnesters at Gordons Pond each summer, but only after the first egg is laid. As soon as the last young birds at Gordons are able to fly, usually in early to mid-August, the beach is reopened to people. The Point remains closed until September to provide undisturbed habitat for plovers as well as other shorebirds, terns and gulls.