Saving shorebirds: North Fork students advocate for endangered species with art

Every summer, beach-nesting birds return to North Fork shores and prepare to lay their eggs on the sand.

However, these delicate, well-camouflaged eggs are vulnerable — endangering and threatening many beach-nesting birds, according to Christine Tylee, group stewardship coordinator for Group for the East End. 

Students from North Fork schools are making an effort to save the shorebirds — one illustration at a time.

Fifteen students from Cutchogue East, Greenport, Southold and Oysterponds elementary schools and Peconic Community School flocked to Breakwater Beach in Mattituck Saturday to unveil their colorful signs advocating for threatened and endangered species.

This is the fourth year the schools have teamed up with Group for the East End to host a drawing competition. The project encourages students to create artwork that relates to endangered and threatened species, such as American oystercatchers, least terns and piping plovers, Ms. Tylee said.

The campaign started in 2016, when Ms. Tylee partnered with Audubon New York to create the “Be a Good Egg” program, which “raises awareness about the impacts of human disturbances and predators while encouraging beachgoers to share the beach with nesting birds,” according to Audubon New York.

“We want these kids to adopt a conservation mindset,” Ms. Tylee said. “I love that ‘Be a Good Egg’ combines art and education in one.”

The winning signs, selected by Ms. Tylee and group vice president Aaron Virgin, were posted outside a preserve site on the beach, a location intended for birds to lay their eggs. In year’s past, the group has placed the posters on beaches with heavy foot traffic, Ms. Tylee said.

This year’s winners include Kate Gromul of Oysterponds; Maddy Sullivan of Peconic Community School; Kyan Olsen, Madison Smith and Christian Mohr of Southold; Gabriela Luna, Liliana Sanchez and Dane Jensen of Greenport; and Jillian Fogarty, Allie Grattan, Page Kellershon, Gianna Calise, Estefani Gomez, Ava Catania and Valeria Funez of Cutchogue East.

Ms. Tylee said she believes visitors are more inclined to look at the signs if they see that children made them.

Gianna Calise, 11, who was unable to attend Saturday’s unveiling event, said she feels proud that her drawing is being used as a tool to educate the community.

“I’m happy that my poster can help people,” she said. “I hope I can make a difference.”

Dane Jensen, 11, of Greenport, said he’s always been interested in nature. He’s expressed interest in working in veterinary care, his mother, Diane, said. His concern for wildlife spiked after Ms. Tylee visited his classroom.

“I think I became a lot more aware of how people can affect the birds and the wildlife,” he said. “This is their home, too.”

Throughout late April and early May, Ms. Tylee said she visited over 200 students to conduct in-class lectures on the importance of protecting piping plovers, a New York State endangered species. The lectures are funded through a grant from Audubon, she said.

Shannon Timoney, the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Peconic Community School, said the program is in line with the school’s philosophy of location-based learning, or educating students about their environment.

“This program is perfect for getting children to be responsible and good stewards where they live,” she said. “Everyone is familiar with these beaches, and I feel like they get a sense of ownership but also responsibility to understand why we have to respect and share the space.”

By displaying images of animals during lessons, Ms. Tylee encouraged students to care more about the wildlife, Ms. Timoney said.

“It helps them understand … endangered species and that once birds are placed on that [endangered species] list, they are at risk,” she said.

Under contract with Southold Town, Group for the East End monitors shorebird nesting sites to help conservation efforts of the various species. Ms. Tylee and other representatives stop by Long Island beaches to educate visitors about shorebirds.

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