Piping Plovers and People: It’s Complicated

In June coastal waterbird volunteer Jeannette Bragger and fellow-volunteer Nancy Braun began monitoring a Piping Plover nest on a very challenging North Truro beach. In this post, Jeannette details how the season went—for them and the birds.

The female of our Piping Plover pair settles back on her well camouflaged eggs. The adults take turns incubating the nest.

Life is tough for Piping Plovers on the Outer Cape. Not only do they often have to contend with extreme weather conditions, they are also regularly stalked by predators like crows, grackles, foxes, and coyotes. And then there are the people. That’s where it gets complicated and where Mass Audubon’s coastal waterbird monitors try to help.

People’s attitudes toward these endangered and highly protected plovers range from love, fascination, and curiosity to indifference, annoyance, and outright hostility. In a few cases, the negativity may result in undesirable actions by a few people. That’s when it becomes complicated.

Imagine being the size of a ping pong ball, not being able to fly yet, and finding yourself in a crowd of people/children, whose primary desire is to have fun, to run, and to play ball. And sometimes they carelessly abandon trash that can attract predators!

The four chicks hatched between June 28 and 29. Here, they were six days old and exploring the world with “Dad” on Fourth of July.

For the most part, things went well with our plover pair that nested on a private resort property this year.  Not only were the owners and caretakers of the resort cooperative and helpful, many of the guests became engaged in monitoring the nest site and then even “babysitting” the four chicks!

By my estimates, my friend and fellow-volunteer Nancy Braun and I talked to between fifty and a hundred adults and many more children staying at the resort. Some had never heard of Piping Plovers, some knew a little about them, and most had never seen them.

Plover chicks roam the beach within a day of hatching and feed themselves. It speeds up development but it also makes tiny chicks vulnerable to beach traffic.

That all changed for many of the resort guests this summer. As I passed by the cottages to check the birds, guests wanted daily updates. When the chicks hatched, they knew we had to see four with the parent(s) so we could document that we had not lost any to predators. “Did you see four, did you see four?” was the perennial question as families sat at picnic tables eating a meal. One group applauded when I told them that yes, indeed, I had found the four with the parents and that they were doing well!

I learned people’s names and some of their stories. They knew my name and wanted to help. If we had trouble finding the chicks, we simply asked someone on the beach if they had seen them. “They were just here…they went that way…we saw them this morning…they’re over there…no, we’re sorry but we haven’t seen them…” were the usual responses. As we left the site, we often semi-seriously designated one group to be the babysitters until we could return later in the day. It became a game that made people feel responsible.

It’s important to note that Saturday and Sunday are turn-over days at most cottages, and hotels in our area. With every turn-over, the people we knew departed and a new set of guests arrived. That also meant that our education work started all over again!

Two of our many helpful resort guests: Leslie Knot, a professional photographer, and Veronica Garza, a stand-up comedian, and their dog Colin (a nature lover and always on a leash!).

Two of the guests at the resort were particularly helpful. Veronica and Leslie arrived from Brooklyn and were thrilled to be on the Cape. They were already familiar with plovers and immediately started looking out for them. As Leslie said: “ We watched the parents defend the nest and saw the chicks hatch and grow. It was an honor to check on them each day and to look out for them.”

“Four chicks?” This was the question we were regularly asked by guests after we checked the plovers. Once, people applauded when we told them yes!

Was everyone equally cooperative and receptive to the plover story? Regretfully, no.

From the woman who repeatedly let her dog chase them; to the man who said he couldn’t control what his children were doing; to the man who jogged through the chicks and said they were faster than he was; to the person who left French fries near the site and didn’t understand that his action would attract dangerous predators; to the teenager who was hitting a baseball in the mudflats where the chicks were feeding and were clearly visible… these were the people who had to be reminded that it’s a state and federal crime to endanger, harass, or in any way disturb protected birds like Piping Plovers.

Of course, we also explained why NO birds should be harassed. In one case, after repeated infractions of the law, the woman who disregarded the leash law finally had to be reported to the authorities. But, in general, we tried very hard to simply help beachgoers understand and cooperate before we explain the possible penalties.

For the most part, our resort guests were kind, interested, cooperative, curious, and helpful. I heard one family explaining to a group of kids that they shouldn’t run near the birds because they could hurt them. They showed them the chicks and the kids were thrilled. The adults repeated exactly what we had just explained to them. It was very gratifying.

Hello! With so many people looking out for the birds, the plovers became used to beachgoers and seemed curious about them. Even the vigilant adult birds didn’t seem to mind their chicks “visiting” people.

Our summer plover monitoring ended on a high note, except that we lost one of our chicks. It’s heart breaking to lose chicks but this year’s survival rate (three of four) is still a success. The odds are not stacked in the birds’ favor. In 2018 we lost two of the four chicks, and in 2019 all four were depredated. Maybe our presence and the people who helped us made it marginally easier for them. But ultimately, they have to take care of themselves. Will they make it to their wintering grounds? We’ll never know. But we wish them well and want to believe that they’ll survive the journey.

“Dad” (upper left) watches two of his brood about to lift off. When chicks can fly, plover monitors can claim success. All photos in this post are courtesy of Jeannette Bragger.

10 thoughts on “Piping Plovers and People: It’s Complicated

  1. Stew Kennedy

    What a thrill your story and photos gave me. Thanks so much for your tireless work on behalf of these amazing birds.

    Reply
  2. Diane M Silverstein

    Congratulations on a successful season! Nancy and Jeannette, you are amazing volunteers and the plovers are lucky to have you! Love how you engage the public! Wonderful article and photos. 💗

    Reply
  3. Mary Lou

    Well done Jeannette and Nancy with the Plovers. You certainly did a wonderful job educating the public and gave the chicks a great head start.

    Reply
    1. Kathy Fogle

      Jeanette and Nancy,
      Thank you for the important work that you do.
      Fantastic pics and story.
      I especially like how you engage all the people and include, and educate them in the process .
      Gotta love those precious little birds!

      Reply

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