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Piping Plovers on Cape Cod

Monday, August 18, 2008

My painting of a piping plover family, done on commission for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In our day's walk on South Beach (we started in the morning, and got picked up around 2:30 in the afternoon) I was delighted to run across two nesting areas that had been cordoned off for piping plovers, those Federally threatened shorebirds with the temerity to lay their eggs right on the sand of beaches all along the East Coast from Maine to Virginia. How dare they, when there are off-road vehicles to be driven, dogs to be run, raccoons, weasels, opossums, skunks, foxes and feral cats to be fed, towels to be spread, fireworks to be viewed, and volleyball to be played? You get the picture. It's tough out there for piping plovers.

I worked with these little birds for three very intense seasons in Connecticut, in the late
80's. At the height of the program I was wrangling 30 volunteers and patrolling beaches in an 80-mile range of coastline. I looked skeletal and just about wrecked my hip joints, walking miles in soft sand while carrying loads of signposts and string. I got a reminder of that on our walk, as my poor old heels sank into wet sand--a week of severe sciatica to enjoy afterward. That was what was wrong with me--cultures revealed that the back pain that I thought might be a kidney infection turned out to have been brought on by the exertion. Good thing I never got the antibiotics I wanted. Better now, though my back revolts when I paddle my little peapod canoe. Tough. I'm going out anyway.

Back to plovers--I was unpleasantly surprised to find new downy chicks--perhaps only a week old--in the first week of August. Since the first broods hatch in April, they should have been flying long ago had everything gone well. I suspected, looking at the evidence of overwash in otherwise suitable nesting areas, that low-profile South Beach might be a marginal place to nest. I conferred with supercute bloggrrl DeeAnne, who keeps a lovely blog about her work studying birds, and spent time this summer on South Beach, keeping tabs on its nesting birds. Sure enough, there were several overwash events, and some of South Beach's plovers were on their fourth nesting attempt. Egad. If you could see a piping plover egg, how enormous it is in relation to the little hen's starling-sized body, and think about her having to lay maybe 14 eggs in a single season, you'd feel my pain.

So here were these tiny downy chicks running about like blown thistledown, with a stern corps of great black-backed gulls staring them down. Between the waves, the wind, the water, the predators, the cruel and heedless morons who drive right through the posted nesting areas on off-road vehicles, and the trespasser who somehow managed to step on an about-to-hatch clutch of eggs inside the roped off area, I marveled that there are any piping plovers on this benighted planet at all.

And then I saw it--a recently-fledged piping plover, innocent of the black markings an adult would wear. Rare, and even rarer: that it wore no bands; had never been handled by a researcher. What a beautiful thing. I hoped hard that the downy chicks we saw made it to flying age, and were strong enough to migrate when the time came. Their parents hadn't given up. One of my favorite photos from the trip--a plover chick sneaking up on a bird chick.

12 comments:

Love that last photo - you can almost hear the chick:
"Be verwy qwiet....we're hunting birdchicks."

My teeth are about to fall out. Piping plover chicks may be the most adorable things on the planet (with the exception of Mr. C. Baker).
Can we turn that last photo into a poster for the plight of piping plovers?????

Plovers are so cute. I fell in love with these dear little birds when I was first introduced to them in Oregon last year.

Hi Julie,

Love the painting!

The design on my shirt is yours too, right? I always assumed it was. The illustrations in the Atlantic Piping Plover Recovery Plan are all yours too.

I loved the chapter on your piping plover endeavors in Letters from Eden. Is it true that you were the first one to use symbolic string fencing or is that just a legend among plover wardens?

We had a very late nest at Parker River too. Weird year.

Are you going to Scott Hecker's thing at the Goldenrod Foundation in September? Do you know Scott? Former Director of Mass Audubon's Coastal Waterbird Program. He's known 'round these parts as "The man who saved the piping plover."

Woo. What befits a legend? Nah, Janet, I just copied Massachusetts. I was, however, the first person to protect Connecticut's nesting beaches with the so-called psychological (string) fencing. It had been done in MA for years and it took a newcomer to CT to look at the situation (which was dreadful) and decide to do something about it.

Yes, I've done lots of art over the years for USFWS and much of it is still in use--the piplo with fuzzy chick, the least terns feeding their young--on signs, brochures and T-shirts all over the place. It makes me happy to know those drawings are still at work educating the public as to why they should care.

I hadn't heard about the Goldenrod event. Probably won't be there, though; my plover days are far behind me. My hat's off to all those who work to save them. It's hard, hard work.

I can imagine you tirelessly pounding the beaches to save the plovers. Your painting is lovely, Julie. I've never seen a Piping Plover but would recognize one immediately... The babe on the beach is so sweet!

Oh, how sweet--and what a miraculous little victory.
Your kind painting is outstanding.
Like the stern corps of gulls, too--definitely in charge of the happenings on that beach.

It is amazing that they survive at all after hearing all they go through. How sweet that you all got to see the new chicks.

LOVE THIS POST! Cute plovers, unsuspecting birdchicks, and some really pissed-off-looking greater black backs. I'm in heaven.

very nice post--does seem very late for little piping plovers here. saw oystercatchers yesterday and thought of you. we had a royal tern, too...unusual for here!

Oh my goodness... I teared up with that post, it brought back such vivid memories. (Especially the part about walking through the sand with armfuls of stakes... I still have bruises and scratches on my arms to remind me of that!) It was fantastic reading about South Beach from your perspective. 'Stern corps of gulls'- what a perfect way to describe them! They always looked so forbidding when I passed them, as though they expected a fare from me. And I LOVE your plover painting with the parent standing over the sleepy-looking chicks. Goodness, 80 miles of beach!? And I thought 5 was intense!!
P.S. - Thanks for linking to my blog- I'm honored!

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