Piping Plovers: What's the Big Deal?

Baby birds in trouble. Endangered. Who wouldn’t want to save the piping plover at almost any cost? All you fishermen, senior citizens, and second graders who’ve lost the use of your favorite beach, line up here.

When I told my seven-year-old daughter that I was writing about piping plovers, she asked, “Why are you writing about the piping-stupid plovers?” Like many children, she is an environmentalist. She is also a friend to all things fluffy – that is, all things except for the piping-stupid plovers.

My daughter’s hostility toward a bird barely larger than her fist developed the same way most hostilities do. The plovers invaded her turf, namely her stretch of sand on State Beach in Oak Bluffs. This is not environmental controversy in the abstract. This is the real thing. My daughter likely believes that piping plovers should be protected. And it’s probably fine with her if other beaches are closed to protect the fluffy little guys – just don’t mess with her beach.

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) was placed on the federal Endangered Species list in 1986, and since then the battle lines between the people and the plovers have, literally, been drawn in the sand. (In Massachusetts, the plovers are listed under the category “threatened,” which, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service website, means they are a species “that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.” The “endangered” listing means “one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”)

Two years after the listing, the Vineyard Gazette reported that “a new form of vandalism” included pelting rocks at nesting plovers and tearing down the ropes that cordoned off a breeding site. Several years after that, plans to rebuild the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick had to be postponed, in part, because of nesting plovers. The issues were eventually and amicably resolved, and the bridge was rebuilt and opened again to over-sand traffic in 1995.

But along the way, some townspeople and fishermen lobbed a few choice words at the conservationists. Access to public and private beaches is a big deal around here. For the last three decades fishermen have been denied access to some of the finest fishing spots on the Island while waiting to see if the plovers successfully nest and fledge. This makes many fishermen unhappy. In a letter to the editor of the Gazette, one irate surfcaster wrote: “I believe the so-called expert environmentalists have a hidden agenda and that is simply to keep ORVs [off-road vehicles] off the beach.” Another writer to the Gazette described the plover-preservation efforts as “quixotic.”

On the Vineyard and at a number of other summer resort communities including Fire Island and the Hamptons, there are piping-plover haters who would plainly like to see the bird gone for good. Anti-plover rage isn’t limited to the shore-fishing population. An irate, beach-worshipping senior citizen recently had to be restrained from trying to pounce on nesting sites. Of course, not everyone wants to stomp on plovers. Kate Conde, a shorebird biologist with The Trustees of Reservations – a state group dedicated to preserving land for public use and conservation, and on Chappaquiddick the owner of a great deal of the beach where the plovers nest – says that terns and other shorebirds don’t inspire the same excitement and dedication to the preservationist cause as piping plovers. “They are the celebrity of the Island as far as shorebirds go,” says Conde.

When fully grown, piping plovers stand only a few inches high and blend almost perfectly into the sand in which they nest. They have twig-thin legs and rounded bodies. Markings usually include a black ring around the neck, a black stripe between the eyes, and a small black spot on their orange beaks. “It looks like they dipped their beak inside a little inkwell,” says Conde, who studies the Island plover population so closely that she can tell one plover from another. “When you stare at them for as long as I do, you pick up distinguishing characteristics.”

Conde has long, straight hair and a generous spirit. Early in the mating season, I joined her on an outing to Norton Point, the beach connecting the Vineyard to Chappaquiddick. As we slowly drove along the shoreline, she noted a plover that she’d spotted a few days earlier. She pointed out another bird hovering close by. The truck quietly idled while she explained the mating ritual that we would soon watch.

The male digs several holes – more like slight depressions – in the sand. The female samples them until she chooses one suitable for a nest (or scrape, as they are called). The male looks eager to mate. Perhaps inhibited by the voyeurs in the truck, the female seems indifferent to, if not annoyed by, his advances. The two birds retreat and rest quietly in cavities carved by tire tracks. Conde tells me that these ribbed gullies in the sand are attractive to the plovers because they provide shelter against wind gusts. Unfortunately, the birds blend into the sand so artfully that if a sport-utility vehicle comes barreling down the beach, the fate of the piping plover that takes up residence in a tire track is all but sealed.

Conde says that over the years Island conservationists and fishermen have developed a good working relationship. “These guys [the fishermen] know me. I’m not going to close the beach just to close it and say, ‘I’ll see you in three months, bye!’” says Conde. But, she admits, “It’s much easier if the plovers get here before the fish.”

While natural predators include skunks and gulls, women’s fashion posed the real, long-term threat to the piping plover. After Marie Antoinette placed several feathers in her hat, to the delight of Louis XVI, a new fad was born. For the next several centuries, plumes, and even entire birds decorated the finest hats money could buy. The Myra hat, adorned with two small birds, caused a sensation in the 1880s. After the turn of the century, hats got even bigger, colors and styles bolder, and satirists took note. In 1907 the lyricist Arthur J. Lamb wrote The Bird on Nellie’s Hat, in which a bird comments on the indiscretions of the young woman upon whose head he sits:

Then to Nellie
Willie whispered as they fondly kissed,
I’ll bet that you were never kissed like that.
Well, he don’t know Nellie like I do,
Said the saucy little bird on Nellie’s hat.

In 1910, the Audubon Plumage Law was enacted, forbidding the sale of feathers from protected species. But after more than ninety years, the numbers of piping plovers haven’t risen enough to keep them off watch lists. Liberated from the threat of fashionistas, they’ve found a new enemy in their midst – the resort developer, who has built beach communities along the Northeast coast. More and more vacationers started flocking to the beaches on which the piping plovers had lived and bred for centuries. Trouble inevitably followed.

One Vineyard hot spot for both plovers and people is Joseph T. Sylvia State Beach, which connects Oak Bluffs to Edgartown between Beach Road and Nantucket Sound. It’s one of the few swimming beaches on the Vineyard open to everyone. It is also one of the very best beaches for small children – it’s close to the parking area, the water warms up early in the season, and a sandbar allows swimmers to stand in the water – sometimes more than fifty feet from shore. Ironically, this beach, which found fame as the scene of a shark attack and a panic in Jaws, is more likely to close down for the summer because of a few harmless birds than a great white shark.

Okay, no one is threatening to close the entire beach. But sections are often roped off to protect the piping plovers. After the birds claim a nesting spot, the surrounding area is enclosed until the chicks are able to fly away. This can take up to several months, because if nesting is interrupted, the birds will begin again.

Debra Swanson, who recently retired from the Island Coastal Waterbird Program of Massachusetts Audubon, oversaw efforts protecting nesting shorebirds on Vineyard beaches, including State Beach, for seventeen years. She warns that the piping plover is just one small part of a much larger and increasingly scary story: “The piping plover is an integral part of a complex beach and intertidal ecosystem. It may be like the canary in the coal mine. The plover’s decline may be a warning signal that the ecosystem is in trouble – that we are not interacting with it in a sustainable manner, and unless we change or modify our interactions, the whole ecosystem will continue to degrade.”  

Unfortunately, the last few years have not been particularly productive for the piping plovers. Last year, the Vineyard hosted thirty-two pairs of nesting plovers at sixteen sites. Of these, 1.06 chicks per pair fledged. Fifteen years ago, the Gazette declared in an editorial: “There is plenty of space for us all to enjoy the water’s edge without endangering the future of two valued but fragile avian friends, the terns and the plovers.” This year the piping plover finds itself on Audubon’s own Top Ten Endangered Birds Report. It’s possible that once people are aware that these birds are on the brink of extinction, they’ll dutifully give up a significant share of the beach on a scorching summer day. But is it fair? Should the beaches that this Island touts to tourists, and are treasured by year-round residents, be restricted?

Last summer, two storms early in the season wiped out nests, and the piping plovers started re-nesting, which meant that portions of State Beach were cordoned off through mid-August. One woman whose job it was to monitor the birds – it was not Debra Swanson – enforced the no-trespassing rule with a determination that struck some beach-goers as fierce. A few longtime fans of State Beach started to cry foul. Enough was enough!

“You’d think God laid an egg there himself,” said one embittered woman who had been going to State Beach for forty-five years, first with her children and now with her grandchildren. Another longtime beach attendee said that extinctions happen, and that “dinosaurs would still be around here if we didn’t let nature do what nature was going to do.”

Since a large number of the forty-five entrances to the 2.1-mile-long beach were closed off because of nesting plovers – all of them at the Oak Bluffs end – adults struggling with chairs, towels, and other beach gear were forced to walk down long stretches of busy roadway looking for an open entrance. Children lagged behind them or ran ahead, sometimes straying into the road while cars, trucks, and buses cruised by.

Pam Rogers, a seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs, was concerned for the safety of her two sons. She sent an e-mail message to a Massachusetts state Environmental official: “I’m completely for saving the environment, but a step back to look at the whole picture would be useful. How absurd to be so concerned about the safety of a couple of eggs when, by the entrances to the beach being blocked off, the safety of hundreds of people was at stake.” Rogers did not hear back from the state.

Problems deepened between regular visitors to State Beach and the determined monitor of the birds, who came to be known as The Bird Lady. One Oak Bluffs resident, who asked to remain anonymous, admits she ducked under the ropes and “got busted.” She added, “I had an ugly, irrational encounter with a protector of the plovers. We’re a pretty patient group, and we were good in the beginning, but it’s getting worse. This past summer was hell.”

 But Debra Swanson says that for sixteen of the seventeen years that she herself oversaw shorebird protection, most of the people who came to the beach enjoyed learning about the plovers and watching them nest and fledge. She says that Massachusetts Audubon has worked hard to make sure beach-goers understand the work they are doing. Until last summer, there were few signs of discontent. “Overall, it’s been terrific for everyone,” Swanson says, adding that she thought last summer was an unfortunate anomaly, caused by the late breeding season, a clash of personalities, and the fact that the county didn’t remove protective fencing quickly after the birds fledged.

Scott Tedford, the new Island coordinator for Massachusetts Audubon, says he understands how things spiraled out of control last year. He promises that this summer he’ll try to mend the rift before permanent damage is done. Tedford plans to keep all the paths to the beach open as long as birds aren’t nesting in the middle of the path. “I don’t want it [the nesting plovers] to be a negative thing,” Tedford says. “I don’t want it to be a competition between the plovers and the people.”

Given my own daughter’s anti-plover sentiments, I’ll admit that I began my research on this story thinking in terms of us versus them. My allegiance was with my daughter. It seemed ridiculous that one of the few great public swimming beaches on the Vineyard was partially closed during the height of the season, especially since the gains seemed negligible. There is limited public-beach access on the Vineyard, and limiting it further during the height of summer is going to cause problems. On the other hand, it’s too easy to take the things we want and claim we are entitled to them.

After watching the piping plovers with Kate Conde, my attitude began to shift. There is something about the plight of the little guys that I sympathize with. I admire the tenacity of the fragile little creatures. I do think compromises need to be made on State Beach, and I have faith that Scott Tedford will win over the beach ladies and recapture the old spirit of cooperation. (Of course, Tedford’s job would be a lot easier if more two-mile stretches of fabulous beach around the Island were opened to the public during plover-mating season.)

I especially want my daughter to understand my change of heart. Luckily for me, her second-grade class happened to be studying endangered species at the time of my conversion. They’ve even been learning about the piping plover. For both of us, I suppose, the true test is still to come. Summer is upon us.