Beach birds

My little blue Honda was sort of waving at me from the office parking lot on Friday. Does that ever happen to you? It was waving and winking and whispering about how nice a few hours at the beach would be. So we took off together and went to Sandy Hook to see the Osprey and the Piping Plovers, both just back in the last week or so from parts south.

Late winter/early spring birdwatching is as good an excuse as any to get out of a stuffy and overheated office. Most places hold at least a few newly arrived birds. The beach was deserted and I felt the pleasure of finding this little Piping Plover and having it all to myself. The dreary weather may have kept other less desperate birders inside, but the fog and the crash of the waves only seemed to amplify the pleasant effect of hearing the plover’s repeated “Peep-lo” calls to one another across the beach. I was almost giddy with hearing it.

Piping Plovers are as special as they are hard to spot. NJ has on average just 120 nesting pairs. I can just imagine how confused and alarmed they must be when the deserted beaches they arrive on in March are increasingly populated with people as the weather warms and the nesting season progresses. They face predation from beachgoers and their pets, and from red foxes, racoons, and laughing gulls.

Symbolic string fences go up in early March to protect the high dunes where they nest from foot traffic by beachgoers. Volunteers monitor and protect the sites and educate the public about why the areas are closed. Cages or exclosures are placed around the nests once they’re dug to keep out foxes and large birds. These things help, I’m sure, but still the population continues to dwindle. There doesn’t seem to be enough being done, and the national park service doesn’t seem to have a realistic plan in place to protect these birds. Imagine these little ones having to find their way to the water past your beach blanket.

I’ve read recently of a new management plan in the works for Sandy Hook, the goal of which would be to achieve an average population of 51 to 61 pairs of Piping Plovers with a reproduction rate of at least 1.5 chicks per pair for five years. I’m anxious to see what is done to achieve that goal.

I seem to have gone off on a bit of a tangent here, but these little birds are close to my heart. I think they deserve much better than the *symbolic* protection we’re affording them: a bit of string, a few educational signs that most ignore, and a heap of garbage just beyond their property line. Maybe if more people had a rainy March day brightened by the plaintive calls of this bird, that, as Peterson says is, “as pallid as a beach flea or sand crab, the color of dry sand.” Maybe that’s their problem; they’re just not showy enough to merit our attention or our protection.

16 thoughts on “Beach birds”

  1. Laura, you are someone I can surely relate to…first, accepting an invitation from your car… :o) I miss the beach. To walk it alone and quietly is a gift to yourself. I don’t know the Piping Plovers but I wish good things for them. Your photos and your words tell the story well. I wonder if most people respect the dunes, lines, and posted signs… probably not. Love your tangents.

  2. Unfortunately, unless people somehow realize that we are not entitled to every square inch of beach space, these wonderful birds, although not showy, will continue to dwindle on the sidelines.

  3. Those piping plover babies may very well be the cutest baby birds ever.
    Plans only succeed if everyone is into it. I am curious to see what the people in charge do for those precious birds.
    My Mom recently participated in a sea turtle nest survey and protection plan, and she reported that even though the local businesses know about the “Lights Out” program, some of them ignore it.
    Why are humans so dumb? I would really like to know.

  4. I think they’re cute little birds. I don’t understand why people wouldn’t care about them.

    And I can so relate to the car and the beach calling! Or in my case, the running trails! 🙂

  5. People tend to see shore birds as “shore birds” and they think there are plenty of them. They don’t pay attention to species or efforts to protect them, as they are only concerned about baking in the sun with their cell phones stuck to their ears. Never mind that they are plunked down in the plover’s living room and weren’t invited…

    Such sweet, sweet chicks. I do hope the goal of re-population is a success for Sandy Hook.

  6. I know there are people who are nasty and hard-hearted, but I think many are just oblivious. I think there are the most who if informed, care but don’t feel one person can make a hill of beans difference. Those are the people who can be inspired by your passion Laura.

  7. My car does the same thing, and I nearly always heed its advice.

    The photos are wonderful and I can see why you care so much about the Plover’s.

    Having people like you in their corner will, hopefully, make a difference.

  8. Dear Laura,

    This is lovely. I’d kill for an empty beach and some Peep-lo’s right now. If you haven’t seen my essay, “Offseasons,” on under Writings, please check it out–it’s an Ohioan longing for piping plovers, years after having worked very hard to protect their nests. Would you believe CT. started with around 21 pairs when I started a program to protect them? Not so much as string fencing around the nesting areas in 1983. Things are different now!
    Your post is lovely. Thank you for the PIPLO’s!

  9. Monarch: You got lots of great birds on that trip!

    Julie: Thanks for leading me to that essay – it’s wonderful!

    I’m curious what more other states do to help them. The odds seem impossible on our crowded beaches, don’t they?

    FC: That’s what the park rangers ought to do, but I think they mostly amuse themselves writing speeding tickets. One park ranger at Sandy Hook runs the whole program, and I think “enforcement” is left up to the volunteers that stand out there in the sun all day.

    Kelly: I love hearing them call.

  10. Laura — Well, I was gonna point you to Julie Zickefoose’s essay but I see she has done that already. You might want to check out my blog, The Plover Warden Diaries. This year
    s entries ain’t much yet because my first shift isn’t until Friday, but previous years’ posts might be of interest.

    I volunteer at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, which because it’s a National Wildlife Refuge run by US Fish and Wildlife Service has protection of wildlife as its primary mission so it can and does close the entire beach for the piping plover nesting season and enforces it with law enforcement officers in addition to volunteers. The National Park Service, alas, has a different mission — visitors not wildlife — so can’t justify total beach closure. That said, the most productive beach for piping plovers in Massachusetts is Crane’s Beach, which is privately owned by the Trustees of Reservations and had never done total beach closure. They use symbolic fencing, predator exclosures, and educational signs. This year they’re even doing away with the predator exclosures because the local crow population has learned to associate the exclosures with easy prey.

    Sorry to be so long-winded.

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