Fire Island Nature
Creatures great and small inhabit Fire Island. Off season they tend to take back their domain…
Fire Island National Seashore is situated along an important migratory corridor for animals including birds, insects, bats and fish. One of the species that can be seen here during fall migration is the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). From mid-August through late September or early October, thousands of these delicate insects stop to rest and feed on Fire Island as they make their way south for the winter. For the butterflies you see on Fire Island, this is a journey of more than 2,500 miles!
The beautiful orange and black adult monarchs we see fluttering above the dunes on Fire Island each fall are flying south to the safety of Oyamel Fir Forests, dense stands of evergreens found at high altitudes in the mountains of central Mexico. There, the butterflies cluster together in the trees for safety from predators and from the elements. The following spring, with warmer temperatures and increasing day length the overwintering butterflies adults emerge from the forests and begin their multi-generational return trip north.
The monarchs that overwintered in Mexico will breed and lay eggs along their journey north. It is their offspring and successive generations that continue the northerly journey to the northern United States and Canada. Unlike the fall monarch migrants that can survive for up to nine months, their northbound relatives live for two to five weeks before reproducing. Eggs are laid on milkweed plants and hatch to become larvae, or caterpillars, that feed solely on the leaves of milkweed to support their rapid growth. The caterpillar then attaches itself to a milkweed plant and transforms into a blue-green chrysalis. It takes about a month for monarchs to progress from the egg stage to adult butterfly.
The piping plover (Charadrius melodus), a migratory shorebird that is listed as federally threatened and New York State endangered, nests on Fire Island National Seashore beaches.
The Atlantic coast population of piping plovers breeds from Virginia to Canada. All piping plovers return to the southern Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast, Bahamas, or West Indies for the winter.
Piping Plovers Blend In
Piping plovers make their nests in the sand along the upper beach and travel to the wrack, or high tide, line and the water’s edge to forage for tiny crabs and other marine invertebrates. Part of this shorebird’s defense against natural predators is camouflage – its sand-colored plumage and eggs blend in with the beach environment.
Their natural camouflage also means that is can be hard for us to see them.
Piping Plover Nesting Season
Piping plover courtship and mating usually occurs from late March through early June on Fire Island. Following courtship, the female bird lays three to four speckled eggs resembling small stones in the nest, a shallow, depression in the sand. Tiny piping plover chicks hatch about 28 days later. Some say piping plover chicks look like “cotton balls on toothpicks.”
For their first four weeks of life, piping plover chicks may wander hundreds of yards from the nest site, usually staying with one or both parents until they fly for the first time. Plovers generally fledge only a single brood per year, but may re-nest if previous nests are lost, or if the chicks are lost within a few days of hatching.
Fire Island National Seashore’s piping plover monitoring and protection program begins in March. The Seashore restricts driving, pets, and kites on portions of ocean beaches to help protect these federally threatened and New York State endangered shorebirds during their nesting season. Find out how you can help protect the piping plover below.
Help Protect the Piping Plover
- Respect fenced areas and stay clear of bird nesting areas. Symbolic, or string, fencing along the upper beach helps protect nesting habitat.
- Where they are permitted, always keep dogs leashed.
- Learn more about Piping Plovers on the North Atlantic Coast
- Take the #FireIslandPledge and help protect all plants and animals, including Threatened and Endangered Species at Fire Island National Seashore.