by Richard LeBlond
The day had been scheduled for cold air out of Canada, a lousy way to start up June. But by the time we had gathered at the parking lot near the beach, the wind had died, the sun had punctured those cold Canadian clouds, and we were treated to one of those fabled “what is so rare?” June days.
The beach belonged to a town on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, and our group included two members of the local conservation commission, a piping plover researcher, a citizen “activator”, and me, a botanist. A few hundred yards down the beach, up where the berm above high tide blends into the toe of the foredune, a pair of piping plovers had scooped out a small pocket in the sand and laid the customary four eggs.
These two sparrow-size birds and their nest had reached a statistical significance wholly out of reason. But these are unreasonable times.
There were seven breeding pairs on this beach in 1986, but in 1988 it was down to two. That had been the trend since monitoring began in 1983. In 1987 there were 126 breeding pairs of piping plovers in all of Massachusetts, the largest population within any of the political subdivisions of the Newfoundland-to-North Carolina breeding range of this federally protected species. The whole Atlantic Coast population was estimated to be no more than 700 pairs.
During our walk down the beach I was introduced to the particulars of this town’s foredune system by the citizen “activator.” He knew where every blowout and overwash had happened, even though the scars had been healed by new beachgrass ridges. And he knew when and how many piping plovers had nested in the old scallops and hollows of blowout and overwash.
Unassuming and always smiling, one sensed that he knew things would be set right again in some eon just around the corner. His information was infused with a quiet but dogged love for land and sea. I understood why one of the conservation commission members had said he was “an activator, not an activist.” He knew how things worked, from foredune to town meeting, and had learned to work with them.
A fortress of rope and warning signs had been erected around the plovers’ nest. It was risky, calling attention to the site like that. But the alternative was worse, and that was soon apparent.
“There she is,” said the plover researcher, scanning the nest site through her binoculars from our vantage point about a hundred feet away. The female plover had scooted off the nest and was standing about three feet from it, so I was told. Looking through my own binoculars, I scrunched my eyes into X-ray mode and still couldn’t see her, even though, as it turned out, I was looking right at her.
The piping plover has a distinctive black band around the neck, and another black band across the forehead from eye to eye. The rest of the body is the color of dry sand. In spite of the distinctive black bands, the bird as a whole presents what ornithologists call a “visually disruptive pattern.” When a running piping plover stops, it disappears.
The four eggs are even less visible in their nest of sand. But it is in this perfect mimicry that another danger lies.
The piping plover was a “hat bird” shot nearly to extinction for the millinery trade around the beginning of the 20th century. When that practice was outlawed, the bird made a strong recovery into the 1940s. The present decline began shortly after World War II with the rapid development of residences and recreational beaches along the Atlantic coastline.
Every year, some piping plover nests and their youthful contents are naturally lost to storm tides and overwash. Animal predation is on the increase from a mixed bag of natural and human-influenced causes. The adults will usually replace a lost nest. Four nesting attempts were recorded for one pair at this beach in 1986.
Habitat has declined. Gulls, profiting from our wastes, have overrun plover breeding sites. Natural predators such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes have also increased in number at the beach because of our edible wastes. Pets, especially unleashed dogs, add to the toll.
On top of all this is Bigfoot. The “perfect mimicry” of plover eggs on the beach has turned against itself. At this Buzzards Bay site in 1986, 12 of 52 eggs (23 percent) were crushed by unknowing human feet.
The wall of rope and signs strung around the nest of our visit would improve this pair’s odds. There are far more clumsy but innocent Bigfoots among us than there are vandals, though one vandal can undo it all.
The little lady standing invisible inside her human-built fortress needs all the help she can get against the tides she cannot see.
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. He has been writing about life experiences, travel to Europe and North Africa in the 1970s, and more recent adventures in eastern Canada and the U.S. West. His essays and photographs have appeared in several U.S. and international journals.