A field guide to PIPLs

Much of the general beach-going public seems determined to believe that Piping Plovers don’t really exist. Many act as if they’re just an imaginary endangered bird the rest of us have made up to inconvenience dog-walkers or otherwise prevent folks from fully enjoying a day at the beach.

But, I have photographic proof of their existence!

😉

The past couple weeks have been Piping Plover boot camp here. Like the mailman, neither fog nor rain nor blazing sun nor gust of wind stays this courier from the swift completion of her appointed rounds! (The weather has been pretty crappy.) I’m out there on the beach daily trying to piece together tracks and sightings of individual birds to predict where they might nest. There’s been a fair amount of false starts and leads, and a steep learning curve for me, but we’ve got 3 pairs with nests!

I can empathize with the public’s general cluelessness about these birds. They’re really hard to see… even for those of us who are looking for them. They’re designed to be invisible. Just imagine trying to find a tiny bird the color of wet sand on a beach strewn with shell shards. It’s not easy! If nothing else, it gives you a real respect for the power of camouflage. But as a result, the public is left looking at yards and yards of “empty” roped-off beach that they’re not allowed to use and wondering what all the fuss is about.

I spent my afternoon “off” the other day visiting with the plovers out at Sandy Hook. The National Park Service monitors the birds there; I just plopped myself down on the beach with my camera, well outside of the roped-off areas, in order to get a general beach-going public sort of view of them. Just to try and see them the way the rest of the world does (or doesn’t!) PIPLs are very agreeable little birds… if you just sit quietly and still enough, they’ll happily share the beach with you. Every little drama of their lives is playing itself out around us on the beaches…

I like to feed on the sparkly parts of the beach.
The dunes hide me well; they’re a good place to rest.
Pebbly and shelly places make me disappear even more.
If I position myself just so, I can have a private bath right at your feet!
My eggs: a masterwork of disguise.

Please share the beach.

Please encourage others to do so.

Please help others to see and respect even the hard-to-see wonders of this world.

These birds live here, too. They’re our neighbors. They need our help.

The way to do it

As the bus slowed down at the crowded bus stop, the Pakistani bus conductor leaned from the platform and called out, “Six only!” The bus stopped. He counted on six passengers, rang the bell, and then, as the bus moved off, called to those left behind: “So sorry, plenty of room in my heart – but the bus is full.” He left behind a row of smiling faces. It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

~The Friendship Book of Francis Gay, 1977

Market finds

One bag of arugula for a certain spoiled bunny. 

One bottle of blueberry honey that will be hidden from a certain teenaged honey-fiend.

I love that there’s a year-round weekly farmer’s market by the bank up the street, but it’s hard to beat the 140,000 sq. ft. Dekalb Farmer’s Market for anything you could want.

Note to bunny people: I can buy a huge bunch of parsley, for example, for just 39 cents!

Going there is an experience; it’s the sort of place I always want to take visitors to Atlanta to visit. They call themselves a “world market” because they have produce, spices and other products from the world over. They also employ a huge number of Atlanta’s immigrant and refugee population; many of my students work there overnight in the bakery or at the checkout line.

The market up the street, on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to deal directly with the farmer or the person who otherwise made the product they’re selling. There’s value in that. If you’re lucky, they might also let you sample something… this afternoon it was kimchi which, thank heavens, tastes better than it sounds!

Do well, be cute, get adopted!

What summer snow is he made of, this pearl among rabbits?
– E.V. Rieu
I’m missing my little white foster bunny, Lucas. I sent him on his way this evening to find his forever home…
I’ll miss the shell-pink of his ears and the nosebonks to my ankle that he greeted me with. Oh and his hijinks at salad time! He is a dancer, this bunny.
My heart goes with you, Looney Tunes! Do well, be cute, get adopted!
Lucas is available for adoption through the GA House Rabbit Society.

Time

Take time to look into the eyes of a stranger passing you on the street… can you find the real person there for a tiny tick of the heart?

Take time to go wonder shopping…

Look up. What beautiful view is waiting just above your head?

Look down. Who’s reaching up for help to rise above sorrow, hardship, a broken soul?

Look around your neighborhood… see the same old streets as if they’re yellow brick roads with a wizard waiting at the end.

Look around your house… what could you lose and still be you?

Look at your work… when was the last time you fell in love with it?

Look inside… what are the secret unlived lives that you could midwife?

Stop the clock and look around… it’s about time.

(Take time to set your clocks ahead tonight, too.)

A spectacle, subdued

Reed’s Beach is a tiny bayshore community located about 10 miles north of Cape May. It and other similarly sleepy and bug-infested places along the shores of Delaware Bay find themselves, for a couple weeks each year in late May/early June, at the convergence of diverse and, often, conflicting interests.

Firstly, there is the time-honored claim made by the horseshoe crab. The spring tides attract them to the calm bay shores to spawn and lay their eggs, by the billions.

Drawn specifically to the horseshoe crabs themselves, rather than their eggs, are commercial fishermen. Their value to the biomedical industry and as bait for eel and conch has led to a severe decline in the horseshoe crab population recently.

Next there are the birds that are lured to the bonanza of food presented by the spawning horseshoe crabs… all the seaside regulars show up to eat… gulls, grackles, shorebirds, crows… the beach is a living (and loud!) mosaic of birdlife.

Add the occasional predator to the scene, in this case a Peregrine, and you have the perfect recipe for a birder orgy. Birders love to see such drama and spectacle.

Our claim to this extravaganza, as birders, is a relatively recent one. Crabs and shorebirds were converging here on the Delaware Bay for any number of years without anyone really being aware of it. No sooner had the birding community come to know of it, than it almost disappeared.

Almost!

The star species in this spectacle of birds and crabs is the Red Knot. A robin-sized shorebird that undertakes a world-class migration and stops, midpoint, at Delaware Bay to refuel on its journey to the Arctic to breed.

Scientists and the birding community have watched their numbers plummet year after year. This year, on the lucky day we were there to witness it, some 5,000 had just arrived from Tierra del Fuego. 5,000 sounds like an impressive number until you understand that you’re looking at approx. half the Eastern population of a species.

Half of all the Red Knots in my world were spread there on the beach in front of us and still the shoreline looked mostly empty. A Peregrine appeared on the horizon and cut through the panicked flock, reducing it by one, perhaps. One less than half the population landed again, only to be panicked from their feeding, yet again, by a photographer or a fisherman intent on the jetty.

We all stake our claims…

One of the finest and most informative videos I’ve yet found is available at this link from PBS.

Sandy Hook

gull wing curve of beach terns
in flocks like sheep standing one-legged
weather vanes into the wind swirls
and eddies of clam shells mussels
chaff of dune grass pebbles drifting
the gentle swells of sand white caps
bottle caps fishing skiffs sand castles
afternoon lineup of jets overhead in the wind
a plastic bag rolls over and over

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Monmouth County Audubon’s bi-monthly field trip to Sandy Hook meets tomorrow at the Visitor’s Center at 10 am. Laughing Gulls have arrived as have other spring migrants. Join us to welcome them back!

The disappearing

What do the disappearing know?

Can they change fast enough
with the few genes they have left
to make themselves more seen
in the sand? Will they learn that
what hides them
has become a clever enemy?

Can we read answers in their eyes
as they lead us away from their nests, piping
between flat beach stones piping
the same smooth recorder notes they piped
when no human threat
smashed their last eggs?

Do they
in their few numbers
hide until time
brings them a safe lover
or a place where their future won’t be shattered?

What can they know of a final going?

Will they continue to try
to guide us away
because it’s the only way they know how?

As if any of us, any fox or truck or boisterous dog could hear that song,
that piper in its low haunt
the possible dirge
of an almost invisible bird.

Garbage on the doorstep

The Piping Plovers that nest at “B” Lot and other oceanside beaches at Sandy Hook do so under almost ideal conditions, at least until Memorial Day Weekend, when beachgoers arrive.

Before then, they court, bond and set up housekeeping in relative isolation. Clamshells and pebbles populate the landscape; bits of driftwood and beachgrass offer them cover.

Save the occasional wayward Lab that can’t resist a dip in their private ocean.

:)

(Dogs are not allowed on oceanside beaches during nesting season. Many people ignore this rule.)

Grrr.

The northernmost tip of Sandy Hook, by contrast, is like another world… beachgoers rarely wander this far; the beach outside the plovers’ protected nesting area is littered with debris…

Piping Plovers, Least Terns, Skimmers, Oystercatchers… they all nest here, in privacy, in the middle of the garbage that washes, butt up, on their doorstep.

Far above the tide line, they carve out their nest scrapes among the scattered wrack and shells; they shelter their young in the shadow of discarded tv sets…

rusted oxygen(?) tanks…

car bumpers…

This last is kinda gross – don’t look!

and decomposing dogs washed ashore from God-knows-where.

(I never did find any Plovers here… but the 8-10 reported recently had plenty of places to hide!)

I think we owe them better; I believe the cost of privacy for endangered and threatened species shouldn’t be as high as this!

Every bit of garbage ends up somewhere… we all know this. A lot of NYC trash ends up at Sandy Hook. This needn’t be so.

:(

Clean Ocean Action sponsors regular beach sweeps… the next at Sandy Hook is scheduled for April 30, 2011!

(Our newly returned Osprey will thank you for a more beautiful landscape over which to hunt flounder!)

Piping Plovers deserve at least as clean a beach as we expect for ourselves, don’t you think?

The places we go back to

Photo by Nina

To some, the mention of West Virginia conjures images of moonshine, hillbillies and mountains leveled by coal companies. The string of small, almost threadbare towns one finds tucked into the hills in the southern part of the state only reinforces the reputation of the place as somewhat benighted.

Yet I keep wanting to go back.

There are no life birds for me there. As a birder, you can understand the equation necessary between limited travel funds and the possibility of life birds added to one’s list.

Birds are not really why I go.

There’s some other appeal in the homespun spirit of the New River Birding and Nature Festival that draws me back late each Spring. It’s run in such a way that it does end up feeling like summer camp for birders, as Bill Thompson says about it. It’s funny to me now to remember a similar feeling before I ever even went to this festival for the first time.

The field trip groups are kept wonderfully small; intimate, even, compared with most popular birding festivals. The trip leaders, besides being experts, are personable and enthusiastic and actually learn your name. Profits from the festival benefit local schools.

These are important things in my book.

This is the perfect festival for The Flock, too. They spread each of us out among the daily field trips – probably so that no one group will be subjected to the bunch of us together – and give us the chance to spend evenings together at dinner and the presentation. Then they secret us away for the night in a farmhouse in the middle of some marsh where no one can hear our silly antics.

; )

I’ve made lifelong friends there. I’ve seen gorgeous birds and beautiful sights shrouded in mist. There are hillsides drenched in wildflowers. There’s biscuits and strawberry jam at every breakfast. A porch swing and Susan.

Is there any wonder why I go back?

There’s still a couple openings for this year’s festival… join us! If not this year, do put it on your list for someday soon.