Saturday, November 22, 2008

Nesting on a Wing and a Prayer

This is an article I wrote about my experiences monitoring shorebirds in Massachusetts for the Georgia Ornithological Society ( This is EXCLUSIVE (haha) in that I'm putting more photos in to illustrate my points, so to speak. I apologize for the wierd formatting, I couldn't figure out how to fix it.

Nesting on a Wing and a Prayer: Monitoring Shorebirds for Massachusetts Audubon

I remember the moment I saw my first Piping
Plover. I was standing on South Beach in
Chatham, Massachusetts, buffeted by icy
winds and decked out in gloves, three jackets,
pants, and socks under my Tevas, to
boot, broadcasting my southern roots loud
and clear. In other words, I was anxious to
see the bird I had left the warmth of the
South for. My supervisor, who was actually
able to use her limbs due to her much lighter
attire, pointed suddenly to a nearby stretch of
gravelly beach. “That’s a Piping Plover,” she
announced. I squinted expectantly, but all I
could see was gray rocks scattered over the
sand. Then suddenly, one of the rocks
moved, and so began my acquaintance with
the Piping Plover.

A sneaky-looking plover.

Even sneakier... can you believe the mastery of disguise!?

My usual attire

After that sighting, I greatly improved at finding plovers, and learned to appreciate the details that set them
apart from rocks: their pert orange bills tipped with ebony, dapper black neckbands, comical “eyebrows,”
and spindly orange legs. Equally enchanting were their personalities. I was smitten with the way they ran
pigeon-toed over the sand and then suddenly stopped short, like confused wind-up toys. Their daring pursuits
of Herring and even Greater Black-backed Gulls that entered their territory were very impressive
(and surprisingly effective). Some of them wanted to get to know me, as well. Sitting against a dune having
lunch one day, watching a pair of plovers that had led me on an epic but fruitless nest search, I froze
as one of them sauntered over to me, stopping five feet away and turning his head sideways to inspect
me. I looked back at him, wondering how strange I must appear to him. He must not have been as impressed
with me as I was with him, because he soon decided he’d seen enough and went back to eating
his own lunch.
My admiration for the plovers grew throughout the summer. They were fastidious nestmakers, the males
making multiple scrapes so that the female could choose the perfect one in which to lay her clutch of one
to four greenish-gray eggs. It took me a month to find my first nest -- the plovers chose sites where their
small, speckled eggs would best be concealed, like open beach scattered with shell fragments, or tucked
away in grassy dunes. “Plover highways,” or a congregation of tracks leading to the nest, loud peeping,
the impressive broken-wing display, and false-brooding (a plover pretending to incubate in order to lead
me away from the real nest) were all clues that I was near a nest. They were fierce defenders, and I was
amazed at the risks the plovers would take to protect a nest. When it rained or the wind was blowing especially
hard, I thought of all the plovers sitting steadfastly on their nests, determined to protect their eggs
when even the elements were against them. They kept trying, despite the predators always watching for
an easy meal, the changing tides that threatened to wash away eggs, the people constantly walking by,
the abundance of “Piping Plover Tastes Like Chicken” bumper stickers. Their determination, whether it
was due solely to Darwinian programming or not, made me deeply committed to helping them in every
way I could [this is true, however cheesy it sounds].

A typical nest

The famous Broken-Wing Display

Clever... did you think of that yourself?

Even if a pair’s first nest failed, they would most often simply try again. One pair lost two
nests, but on the third try, all three eggs survived to hatch into downy, impossibly tiny chicks, proving that sometimes the third time really is the charm. The chicks,
too, were much more intrepid than their fuzziness belied.
On the first day, they could walk, and had to feed themselves
from the moment they broke free of the egg. They
quickly became experts at using their absurdly long legs —
we would find them half a mile from the nest site in a matter
of days!

Major fuzz factor.

Piping Plovers may be masters of camouflage and charisma,
but they are powerless to stop coastal development,
oust introduced predators from their nesting habitat, keep
off-road vehicles at bay, or slow the over-harvesting of
horseshoe crabs, whose eggs make up an important part of
the plovers’ diet. That’s why, in 1987, Massachusetts Audubon
created the Coastal Waterbird Program (http:// to give the plovers, and other
shorebirds, such as Least Terns and American Oystercatchers,
a hand. The CWP was originally created to protect nesting areas of Piping Plovers and terns,
but ultimately aims to extend this protection to the whole coastal ecosystem. The success of the program
is indisputable: in 1986, before CWP’s inception, only 135 plover pairs were observed in Massachusetts;
preliminary data for 2008 indicates the presence of around 600 pairs [hooray!!].

In contrast to the plovers, the American Oystercatchers stuck out like sore thumbs no matter where they
were. I had seen these clowns of the shorebird world before on Jekyll Island, but had never gotten to
hear their wheedling shrieks or see their fuzzy black chicks stumbling behind their parents on disproportionately
long legs. Massachusetts is the northernmost part of the oystercatchers’ breeding range, and
though there were only a few pairs on South Beach, many of then produced fledglings, which were almost carbon copies of the adults except for their darker bills.

Is it just me, or does something stick out in this picture?

An AMOY nest

A large, fuzzy rock. Just hangin' with all the other rocks.

Least Terns made it a point to be conspicuous — either by raucous screaming, dive-bombing, well-aimed
projectile poop, or a combination of all three. There were two major Least Tern colonies on the beach,
and both required mental stamina and an acclimation to walking through bird poop. It was quite a sight to
watch a hundred or so terns converge on a trespassing gull, and a beachgoer who tried to take a shortcut
through the Least Tern fencing was apt to regret it immediately!

[Unfortunately, I don't have many pictures of the terns! They were hard to photograph because they were so small and, unlike the plovers, they were flying almost all the time.]

Today, the Coastal Waterbird Program protects Piping Plovers,
Least Terns, Common Terns, Roseate Terns, and
American Oystercatchers. Conservation efforts include identifying
and fencing off areas where plovers, oystercatchers,
and Least Terns are nesting to prevent disturbance from
beachgoers, ensuring that off-road vehicles aren’t being
driven in nesting habitat, public education, and much, much
more. This summer, I was inspired by the tireless efforts of
both the birds and the people working to protect them. I’d
like to think that if I see a Piping Plover on the Georgia coast
this year, then maybe, just maybe, it’s a bird that made the
miraculous journey from egg to chick, from chick to fledgling,
and finally, from Massachusetts to Georgia.

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