Plovers and priorities

29 04 2014

A few weeks ago, I started getting emails from Seanetters wondering how to deal with the annual beach restrictions for breeding piping plovers. It’s a tricky subject, and one we have to manage beach by beach as conditions dictate. When I first began walking for SEANET in 2005, my beat was the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Massachusetts. The beach there, however, is closed to the public along nearly its entire length and width from April through July or so. A four month gap in data collection is no good, so I changed beaches to one that remains accessible year round.

The Refuge is for (p)lovers!

The Refuge is for (p)lovers!

This is also the time of year that public griping over the plovers begins. Beachgoers frustrated by the restrictions buy bumper stickers reading “Piping Plover: tastes like chicken” and hail as their anthem the spoof song produced by a Boston radio station called “50 Ways to Kill a Plover.” My own students often question me about why so much of a beach has to be closed for such diminutive birds. The answer is that it doesn’t always have to be, but it does appear to help.
Parker River is a National Wildlife Refuge. As such, its first and primary allegiance is to wildlife. Human concerns and recreation are well down on the priorities list there. Keeping people entirely off the often narrow beaches of Plum Island reduces stress on the birds, allowing them to incubate eggs, rear chicks, and feed along the water’s edge without constantly dodging human feet, or boisterous dogs, or careening kites plummeting down on them from the sky. Though the birds be but small, their range for feeding can be quite large, and the general recommendation is to give the birds 55 yards of space at all times. On a very narrow beach, this may become entirely impossible, subjecting the birds to greater stress and risk than is healthy or conducive to chick-rearing.
Other beaches try to strike more of a balance between human and plover uses, excluding humans from areas near the dunes where nests are most frequently located. At other beaches, restrictions are limited to small fenced in areas around known nests. As one might expect, the greater the degree of protection, the greater the breeding success of the plovers, as a general rule. By way of example, Parker River’s beaches support an average of 12 pairs a year. Nearby Salisbury Beach, which is a state park that remains open to human use through the spring and summer, has a very similar landscape and habitat but supports none or perhaps 1-2 pairs per year.
While piping plovers have had a harder time making a comeback in their Great Lakes breeding grounds, the birds are doing quite well here on the East Coast, through the efforts of federal and state managers and non-profits (like Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program here in my neck of the woods). The tradeoff, then, is that as more plovers survive and come to breed on our beaches, more of those beaches are restricted, in full or in part, to protect those additional animals.
For our part, as Seanetters, we readily admit that the protection of live plovers trumps access to dead birds any day. We are always hopeful that our volunteers will continue to be able to at least walk the full length of their routes, even if they cannot reach up to the wrack line or the dunes on some of them. We handle these restrictions on a case by case basis, so if your beach is a plover love nest and you’re not sure if you should continue walking there for SEANET or not, let us know and we can help make that decision.

A gull carcass tantalizingly close by, but off limits. Can you spot a plover? (photo by D. Cooper)

A plover at the edge of the frame and a gull carcass tantalizingly close by, but off limits. (photo by D. Cooper)

Above all, and I know you all do, respect all fencing, signage and beach closures! Tempting though it may be to just lean across to snag that dead gull just beyond the fencing, don’t do it! We’re quite happy with a photo snapped from a distance. Better a safe and stress free plover than an ill-gotten photo.

Happy breeding to the little guys, and to all our Seanetters, watch your step, and brake for plovers!



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