Category Archives: In the neighborhood

Good PR

“Please watch where you step!” was the catchphrase for today, delivered with a smile to surfers and fishermen and young girls in tiny bikinis. Always the smile.

I’m in the PR business now, for Piping Plovers. Smiles are good PR*.

And there was plenty to smile about… it was a beautiful day, I got to see the sunrise over the ocean, and there were teeny-tiny Plovers afoot. (This is an adult, tho)

The Least Tern colony that the Plovers share was frantic today… I was dive-bombed at least a dozen times. That’s not such good PR, but it serves an important purpose.

At some point, midmorning, an adult Piping Plover carried and dropped this half eggshell near the ropes of the closed area. A khaki-colored egg flecked with brown that indicated #3 of 4 had hatched.

At sunset today, after 11+ hours of watching, a chick was finally within camera-shooting distance near the upper wrack line, #4 still hadn’t hatched, and I ended the best day at the beach in a good long while.

These babies are so incredibly tiny… like little bugs… like a mirage in the hot sand.

They are their own best PR… how could anyone resist such cuteness?!?

*One thing I love about the group that I’m volunteering with is that they’ve managed to get the general beach-going public on our side… they ask about how the birds are doing and help us to police the area… it feels as if the community is caring for these birds, which is very sweet.

Tern love

The terns have been on eggs for weeks now, in all their exposed locations along the shore. Their dedication is inspiring; no less so because of the challenges they face.

The opportunity to watch them, to babysit them – as I’ve come to call it lately – reveals the little dramas that fill their days. Least Terns seem prone to drama. They continue to court and strut, and flirt with fish, even after the eggs have been laid.

Sometimes they even seem to dance, making even a mundane nest exchange into theater for the careful observer. They’re aggressive and anxious, even with their mates. Neighbors are met with outright hostility for the slightest trespass. A gull or Fish Crow overhead sends the small colony into panicked flight.

I’ve been trying for the past week or two to get a photo of a nest with eggs to share here, but haven’t accomplished that yet. The few looks I’ve had are too brief for a photo, but I can tell you this: the eggs are speckled with rock and sky and summer sands, and with the shadows woven by the beach grass that surrounds them.

Chicks have started to hatch in the last couple days and they are nearly as undetectable as the eggs they leave behind. Until they move, that is! There are two hidden in the tuft of beach grass to the right in the photo above.

Unlike Piping Plovers who are off and running to feed themselves within hours, the Least Terns scuttle around in the dunes waiting to be fed. Theirs is a steep learning curve; before they can learn to fish, these babies must learn to fly.

Until then, they rely on their parents for food and their cryptic coloration to keep them safe. “I am not here” say the markings on their sand-colored bodies, the lines and patches magically drawing your eye away from them. No sooner do you catch sight of one, then, look away and it vanishes.

Please click on the pic above to make it larger. Let yourself fall in love a little… I did!

This pic isn’t mine, but I include it for the “Awww” factor.

I’ve had some really wonderful interactions with beach visitors so far… most are respectful of the closed area of the beach and actually interested in the birds. Fun! I’m looking forward to setting up the scope there one of these days so others can see them and share some of the love.

Off duty

I caught sight of this Piping Plover late in the afternoon as she(?) stretched her legs and went off to feed in the surf; she’d just been relieved of nest-sitting duties by her mate. She preened her feathers some, stretched her wings and disappeared into the crowd of sun-worshipers.

Her eggs are expected to hatch in about 14 days!

A craving, satisfied

As the peak of summer bloom approaches, a foray into the local botanical garden offers something that feels like meditation. With the familiar heft of my camera in hand, I am occupied with wonder. There, just there, tucked into a sunny corner of the demonstration garden, a patch of lavender is busy with bees…

Last summer I was craving a Lensbaby; I will likely spend this summer making many mistakes in learning how to use its wide-angle and bendy-action to best effect. I hope you’ll enjoy seeing in a new way along with me.

Plovers, now

I’m counting on you all not getting too tired of these fuzzy snapshots of Piping Plovers…

; )

I’ve been “occasionally” volunteering as a plover warden at Seven President’s Park in Long Branch for a little over a month now… meaning I show up there when the mood strikes me and walk the wrack line and look officious with my badge and binoculars and big camera lens…

: )

Until this past weekend, I was monitoring nothing beyond a space set aside for the hope of nesting Piping Plovers. A pair had made an attempt in late April, but hadn’t been seen since… I kept showing up anyway when I needed an ocean fix, but really had started to wonder if my time there made any sense.

These birds are notoriously hard to see and survive mostly by being invisible, so I kept telling myself that I just wasn’t looking hard enough, you know?

The Least Terns showed up and they were enough of a distraction for a while that I was able to feel like my presence there was important enough. But…

I heard just today that there are two nesting pairs with eggs(!) and those nests have been protected with exclosures…

: )

So now the serious business begins… where’s my whistle?

Plover news

I thought I’d take a minute to share some pix and an update on the Piping Plovers out at Sandy Hook. I got to spend some quality time with them on World Series Day when all the serious birders were sorting through the gulls and terns amassed at the end of the Fishermen’s Trail.

Did I mention that we made two death marches out there that day to look at gulls?

: )

I’ve decided this season to volunteer as a shorebird monitor at a different site, rather than Sandy Hook. At our site, we don’t yet have a pair of nesting Plovers and with each day that passes the chances of a pair nesting there decreases. It’s likely that we’ll have Least Terns, though, so I’ll still have an excuse to hang out at the beach after work a couple days a week.

Sandy Hook is a very productive site and already this season has something like 30 nesting pairs. The dunes are decorated with electrified nest exclosures like this one pictured… each one marking the location of an active nest.

The nest exclosures take the invisible and make it very conspicuous. It’d be hard to stumble upon and destroy a nest so clearly identified in this way. The electrical shock is said to be mild and just enough to deter predators like foxes and gulls from gaining entry. I’ve read that foxes continue to be a problem, however, as some learn to dig under the exclosure to get at the nest within.

Sadly, a mild shock is not enough to deter malicious people from willfully destroying Plover nests. About-to-hatch eggs were removed from an electrified exclosure at Sandy Hook a couple summers ago. That sad story is available here. Of course no one will ever be caught, but the reward sign still stands at the beginning of the Fishermen’s Trail.

Even though it goes against the Plover’s natural defense mechanism – being invisible – I’d guess these exclosures are a good thing in that they make the nests out-of-bounds for the casual beach-walker or off-leash dog. For the occasional idiot intent on hurting them, the exclosure marks an easy target.

Working the tide lines and wet sand in wash zones, both adults and chicks will seek the shore to find worms, fly larvae, beetles, crustaceans, mollusks and other invertebrates to pluck from the sand.

On World Series Day I was lucky enough to witness a nest exchange; the male sneaking in to take over egg-warming duties from the female. Later in the day, I found the pair feeding together at the shoreline.

I’m assuming this is a pair, anyway!

How such a small and unassuming bird survives in this harsh and changeable world is an incredible story. For all their dauntless spirit, Piping Plovers always seem to live on the edge of extinction, facing every year fewer nesting beaches, increasing pollution, human development and a growing population of predators. They deserve every bit of protection we can afford them.

And as much camera time as they’ll comfortably allow.

: )

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.