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!

Beware the plover wardens!

12 06 2012

It’s Piping Plover breeding season, and the diminutive shorebirds are not alone on the beaches of the east coast; their companion species, the plover wardens, have also descended, bright orange fencing over their shoulders, variably attired in khaki vests, polo shirts bearing official logos and serious looking “just try and cross that line” expressions.

Having grown up in Massachusetts nearĀ Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, where most of the beach is closed entirely most of the summer, I know the rage these birds can stir in the hearts of locals. Even as I kid though, I found it satisfying that the birds got almost a whole island to themselves, without dogs, pickup trucks, or staggering drunks to stomp them. But I always felt a bit left out, watching the plover wardens patrol the boundary between the peopled beach and the plovered beach.

As a Seanetter, it becomes even worse. After all, we’re out there on the beaches in all weather, all year round, and then suddenly, our access to our turf is curtailed by those orange fences and the crossed arms of the plover wardens. It can be tempting to slip past the fencing, rationalizing that SEANET is environmental science, so we should have special privileges. But today, I write urging you to resist the temptation. No one likes being left out, but Seanetters of all people should be first to appreciate the exclusion zones.

Last month, I got an email from a Massachusetts Audubon employee on Cape Cod. She told us that some beachgoer had found a seabird wing tagged with orange cable ties and had brought it to the Audubon center. It was, of course, one of ours. No information was left on where the wing was found, or when. I was frustrated that this beachgoer had interfered with our project, and that we’d lost a data point as a result. But more than that, as a teacher I was frustrated at my inability to reach his person, to explain the purpose of the project, and what to do if he or she ever finds another bird carcass bristling with orange tags. I suspect the same is true of the plover wardens. While they often do seem to derive understandable delight in sternly warning jerk-face frisbee players away from the tiny eggs, I know that they all volunteer because they love the birds and they wish more people would too.

So, Seanetters, respect the fencing, respect the beach closures, and be kind to the plover wardens. If you spot a beached bird in an exclusion zone, I warn you officially, don’t go in after it! It’s not worth the risk to the living birds. You may find that if you contact the folks responsible for the plovers on your beach, they may permit you to pull the bird out, or they may have someone fetch it for you. Tell them I sent you. If you are a new Seanetter and you find that most or all of your beach is closed for plover or tern nesting, let me know and we’ll determine if you need a different beach.

Humans naturally close ranks around their particular tribes. We have many Seanetters who keep one foot in the SEANET tribe and one among the Plover People. We do have a lot in common with them. So keep that in mind, and keep SEANET plover friendly!

p.s.–in response to a very shrewd observation by blog visitor David Clerk, “what is one to do with a SEANET carcass found on the beach?” The answer: leave it be, and send me an email to let me know where you spotted it, when, and what, if any, number it sported on its tag. Thanks for pointing out my failure to say that in the body of this post!