Piping plovers are tiny creatures, but on Chappaquiddick, they can stop a two-ton truck in its tracks.
For the next two months, piping plovers, which have been classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act since 1986, will be nesting, breeding, and skittering across Chappy beaches, which means detours aplenty for vehicles with an oversand permit.
“In a nutshell, we have a lot of birds, although they’ve had as tough a time with the spring weather as we have,” Chris Kennedy, The Trustees of the Reservations Martha’s Vineyard superintendent, told The Times. “It’s still a healthy population, so far.”
Nineteen pairs of piping plovers and 12 nesting pairs have been counted between Norton Point and the Gut, Mr. Kennedy said. “Four of them have chicks, and there are several more due to hatch very soon.”
The situation is a highly fluid one. Last Friday, only the beaches from the Cape Poge Elbow to the Gut were closed to traffic, along with a short stretch north past the Jetties and a small portion of Norton Point Beach. North of the Dike Bridge was open as far as the lighthouse, leaving 4-wheelers considerable room to roam.
But over the weekend, spotters found some new plover nests on the inland road, and as of Monday, no vehicle traffic is permitted anywhere north of the Dike Bridge. “This was not totally unexpected, but it’s surprising how fast it happened,” Mr. Kennedy said. “We’ve got a crew of shorebird monitors as well as rangers; they’re out there every single day. They’re keeping a very close eye on things. Beach closures can happen quickly, and likewise, so can the reopenings.”
South of the Dike Bridge, a short stretch of Leland Beach is closed, but drivers can bypass it on the bayside road.
“We’ve got a pair of plovers that just hatched opposite Dike Bridge at the top end of Leland Beach,” he said. “We’re keeping an eye on them to see where they end up. This pair has been coming back for the past three or four years in that same spot. Generally they either head south, which could close more of Leland, or they may go northward, as they’ve done in the past. As I told many of the fishermen over the weekend, about the only thing you can do is wait and see what these birds do.”
Mr. Kennedy said he was optimistic that the bayside road south of the Dike Bridge would stay open all summer. “The state has determined that the bayside road does not contain habitat suitable for feeding,” he said. “In over 30 years, I’ve never seen birds nest there. People will still be able to access the rest of Leland Beach, and they can park and walk around the corner to Wasque.”
A small section of beach at Wasque Point is closed to vehicles due to erosion, not the diminutive birds, but there is a trail for pedestrians.
The nesting period lasts until the chicks have fledged, which takes six to eight weeks. During that time, according to Massachusetts state law, there can be no vehicle activity within 100 yards of the closest piping plover nest or chick. Plovers don’t like to nest close to one another, so a few nests can take up a lot of beach.
“The law doesn’t say ‘100 yards from the nest,’ it’s ‘100 yards from the closest chick,’ so as fledglings wander further from the nest, it’s possible we may need to close more beach,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Historically, plover closures have a considerable impact on Norton Point Beach, the popular barrier beach that separates Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. The two-mile-long stretch of sand has become hugely popular in recent years — on summer weekends it’s one big beach party, with SUVs and pickup trucks as far as the eye can see. But last summer, just four-tenths of a mile of the beach was open on Fourth of July weekend, due to the nesting shorebirds. Only 120 vehicles were allowed on the beach on the Sunday of the big holiday weekend, and trustees closed Norton Point to vehicles by 9:15 am, leaving many disappointed 4-wheeling holidaymakers.
“I’m cautiously optimistic more of Norton Point will be open this summer,” Mr. Kennedy said. “My advice for people is to take advantage of the situation right now. For the most part, that area is free of restrictions. That could change very soon.”
Areas on Chappy closed to vehicle traffic are shown on the trustees’ Facebook page, and will be updated as conditions change. Oversand permit holders can also call 508-627-8390, for the latest in beach closures/openings.
“You can still walk on all the Chappy beaches,” Mr. Kennedy said.
According to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the piping plover population in Massachusetts decreased 5.5 percent in 2016. The statewide census conducted between June 1 and June 9 counted 649 breeding pairs. A total of 912 chicks were reported fledged in 2016. Martha’s Vineyard, which accounted for eight percent of the plover population, went counter to the statewide trend.
“Last year we had a really good year. Our productivity was pretty close to the state goal, which is 1.25 chicks per pair, and we were at 1.15,” Mr. Kennedy said. “There were beaches in other parts of the state that had awful years. North shore on the Cape really had a tough time of it. Crane Beach in Ipswich had predators like great horned owls and coyotes, and a lot of really bad weather last summer. We’ve been rather fortunate here. Statewide, long-term, the population is still going up.”
When they were declared “threatened” in 1986, it was estimated there were just 139 breeding pairs of piping plovers in Massachusetts. Since then, state officials have required fencing around nests, leashes for dogs, and warning signs to alert people to plover presence. The wire screen exclosures for nesting plovers are about six feet long and three feet high. The mesh is big enough to let fledgling plovers get out and forage for food. “That’s the most dangerous time, after they’ve hatched and before they can fly,” Mr. Kennedy said.
There are other protected birds to watch on Chappy. Mr. Kennedy said the entire tern colony at Norton Point was wiped out, mostly due to predation by crows. He estimates there are about 100 tern nests at the Cape Poge Elbow.
The black skimmer, which showed up on Chappy for the first time in 2009, totals six nests this year, up from four nests last year. “It’s still possible that more black skimmers will show up this year,” Mr. Kennedy said.