“But if I were required to name a sound the remembrance of which most perfectly revives the impression which the beach has made, it would be the dreary peep of the piping plover which haunts there. Their voices, too, are heard as a fugacious part in the dirge which is ever played along the shore for those mariners who have been lost in the deep since first it was created. But through all this dreariness we seemed to have a pure and unqualified strain of eternal melody, for always the same strain which is a dirge to one household is a morning song of rejoicing to another.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod, 1865
Thoreau’s writing about the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) offers a reflection on the different ways people perceive wildlife especially in this excerpt “…the same strain which is a dirge to one household is a morning song of rejoicing to another.”
The Piping Plover evokes differing emotions for people. The issue of Piping Plover conservation has been thorny for many beachfront communities because the birds nest at ground level in the sand on beaches heavily visited by people. While provoking contempt among some for beach restrictions and closures, the Piping Plover also inspires adoration, even local art. Amidst the contemplation and conflict is an opportunity to learn more about this fascinating species and why Piping Plover conservation matters.
Much has been studied about the Piping Plover on Cape Cod over the past several decades since its listing on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1986. The Atlantic Coast population is listed as federally Threatened and is also protected as a Threatened species by the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. At present, there are about 8,400 pairs left in the world.
Piping Plovers are one of about 30 species of plovers found globally, a small but chunky shorebird with a stubby orange and black bill in their breeding season plumage. They are one of a relatively small number of species of shorebirds that nest in New England; most North American shorebird species nest in the Arctic. Their sand-colored plumage, festooned with a black neck band, helps them blend in the great expanses of sand of barrier beaches, those unique and fragile sandspits at the edge of the sea.
As their luck has it, they call the beach environment their home year-round, migrating to the Bahamas, Cuba, and the Gulf Coast in the winter. Piping Plovers hyperactively run along the shoreline, through washed-up seaweed (“wrack”), and on mudflats, stopping to feed on polychaete marine worms, insects, crustaceans, and mollusks. A healthy menu of these intertidal morsels is vital for plover reproductive success.
Piping Plovers arrive on the beaches of southeastern Massachusetts at the tail end of winter’s grip in late March, typically returning to the same areas year after year. Males, arriving first, aggressively defend their territories from each other. When not attacking each other (even in flight!), males run alongside each other in a kind of territorial dance. Males fly circles around their territories while peeping to attract a female.
They also make “scrapes” (potential nest sites) by pushing their breast into the sand and kicking out sand with their feet to form a small depression. The female may later select one of these scrapes for the nest site, decorating it with small bits of clamshell or pebbles. Most entertaining of all, the male plover performs a high-stepping dance, puffing out his chest, following behind the female, often prior to mating. Shorebird monitors learn to look for these tracks as nests are often located nearby. (You can watch videos of these behaviors here: https://www.greatlakespipingplover.org/life-history.)
The first Piping Plover nests are laid in late April, their four eggs camouflaged in the sand. The nests are often found on the foredune edge on gentle slopes with sparse vegetation, but pairs also select nest sites in open, sandy dune blowouts and on deposited dredge spoils. Sometimes nests are found within Least Tern colonies, another state-protected and elegant species with similar habitat requirements. Very rocky beaches are less suitable habitats for Piping Plovers.
Threats to Nests
Because they need habitat elevated above the high tide line, they will not nest on beaches with seawalls. Groins and jetties along the shore also alter longshore drift (the deposition of sand along the shoreline), and starve beaches of sand on the down-drift side, negatively impacting nesting habitat.
Piping Plover nests face a myriad of threats during incubation. Hungry predators like foxes, crows, gulls, and skunks take a toll. Nests can be lost to tidal overwash of the beach during storm events. Nest losses from anthropogenic (human causes) include accidental trampling as well as over-sand vehicles and nest abandonment due to disturbances from off-leash dogs or fireworks.
Fortunately, shorebird monitors protect nesting habitat from human disturbance by creating barriers of symbolic fencing around suitable nesting sites. If nests manage to survive and eggs hatch after a four-week incubation period, the newly born chicks still face the threats of predation, extreme weather, and disturbance from human activity. Adult plovers take turns brooding the young to keep them warm and perform a “broken-wing display” when predators approach their chicks, distracting them and leading them away from their young.
The chicks are born fully feathered with their eyes open. This adaptation allows them to better navigate the challenges of living on a busy barrier beach. This mobility leads to challenges for coastal managers when chicks want to cross busy parking lots or oversand vehicle trails to feed.
After about a month of constant feeding, the chicks are ready to fly. At this point, they may leave their natal beach for better foraging grounds. By early August, both juveniles and adults may start to form flocks with other plovers on beaches offering the best foraging habitat, a process called “staging” for migration.
Harwich typically has 2-3 pairs nesting on local beaches, including Red River Beach, where their habitat is protected and monitored by the Town of Harwich Conservation Department. The Cape’s Outer Beach from South Monomoy to Provincetown supports about 1/3 of the total Massachusetts population of Piping Plovers.
In 2019, over 740 pairs were recorded in Massachusetts, representing over 1/3 of the Atlantic Coast population. Last year, the city of Boston even boasted a nesting pair of plovers for the first time in decades. This success is in no small part due to the strength of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, and the conservation efforts of the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Massachusetts Audubon Society (Mass Audubon), The Trustees of Reservations, and municipalities.
This year’s effort to protect Piping Plovers at Red River Beach is little different than previous years despite our upended lives as communities adapt to Covid-19 restrictions. Dogs are still prohibited from public beaches during the summer, the Town’s Conservation Department maintains symbolic fencing around nesting habitat and monitors nests almost daily, and people are still curious about the birds. Town Conservation Administrator Amy Usowski and Assistant Conservation Agent Nicole Smith split monitoring duties at Red River and the Town’s other public beaches. Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program monitored the Town’s beaches until 2019. A nesting pair at Red River Beach has recently hatched chicks.
“Every living thing has a piece in this puzzle. Without restrictions, these birds wouldn’t exist. We can control our own behavior, and by doing so, we can help Piping Plovers continue to survive,” said Amy Usowski about the importance of management for this species. These management actions have increased the Atlantic Coast population from fewer than 800 pairs in 1986 to over 2,000 pairs today.
The Bigger Picture
Evolution is a delicate series of relationships between species in an ecosystem with natural selection as the driver spurring species adaptation and co-evolution to a changing environment. As humans disrupt and destroy habitat, the species with whom we share this planet are disappearing forever in the blink of an eye relatively speaking compared to the long arc of geological time. Too often, we don’t realize how important species were until they’ve gone extinct. The sudden loss of one species negatively impacts others as the evolutionary balance is upset. The ripple effects can be unpredictable. As part of maintaining the balance of our larger coastal ecosystem, the Piping Plover recovery represents a success in protecting a vulnerable species at risk of extinction.
Healthy ecosystems are important for both plovers and people. Humans as a species are especially dependent upon the web of life that nourishes us with resources of food, water, shelter, and clean air. Our survival demands that this will always be so. Our spiritual survival demands it even more so.
As the stewards of our shared environment, we have choices to make about how and where to preserve biodiversity as well as where to restore it. Hopefully as individuals and collectively we make the right, science-based decisions that both support our health and the health of neighboring species with which we share the Cape and beyond.
Story and commentary by Tyler Maikath, HCT’s Outreach & Stewardship Coordinator
Tyler studied Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Rhode Island and developed an interest in birds, their natural histories, and conservation. After graduation, Tyler worked a variety of seasonal positions focused primarily on seabird and shorebird conservation with Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program and Mass Wildlife’s Buzzards Bay Tern Restoration Project. In 2009, Tyler earned his Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies at Antioch University of New England.