Plover lovers take cover
Early April usually marks the innocuous return of the piping plover to beloved Vineyard breeding grounds, but a recent study has sent scientists scrambling to prevent what could be one of the Island's most menacing ecological disasters in the last 60 years.
The study, conducted by the Cape Cod Audubon Society (C.C.A.S.), revealed that decades of conservation have resulted in monstrous population growth for these small sandy-colored birds, and it is now unclear that our shorelines can handle their migration.
C.C.A.S. Chairman Francis O'Leary addressed the media Wednesday morning from his Chatham headquarters with a brief and worrying message: "The Plovers, once threatened so severely, have turned the tables and now appear to be the ones doing the threatening."
Andrea P. Foleman, the project's lead ornithologist, handled the deluge of media follow-up questions and helped to put the plight into perspective. "Imagine that the rest of Cape Cod and Nantucket were to disappear, and all of the tourists in those regions jammed the ferries and poured out into Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs looking for lodging, food, transportation, and entertainment," she said. "Now replace these tourists with Charadrius melodus [the plover's Latin name] and you can begin to comprehend the challenge thrust upon us."
This challenge centers on the damage incurred when an over-population of plovers returns to an insufficient breeding ground. Foleman presented a timeline that hypothesizes an initial arrival to Vineyard beaches where thousands of plover footprints may destroy the dune ecology in a matter of days. "In the past, we had no idea of their raw strength," she said. "While the piping plover looks almost identical to the sandpiper, its digging capacity is ten times as effective. We had never realized this because there weren't enough of them in our dunes to notice anything that couldn't be otherwise attributed to natural erosion." Foleman went on to describe the plover as "the world's smallest bulldozer."
The eco-carnage could easily continue away from the sand. Waste from an uncontrolled population of plovers may leave our coastal ponds fouled, compromising shellfish and straining environmental management budgets.
Upon leaving the press conference, Oak Bluffs resident Garrett Feingold quipped morosely about the situation, "You've heard of 'up the creek without a paddle'? Well, I fear we're up the dune without a shovel."
The C.C.A.S study described a species that prefers a loner lifestyle, one that made the piping plover harder to properly count in the past. The most recent tally along the entire Atlantic seaboard stood at less than 2,000 pairs, but experts now suspect that the figure may now be in the tens of thousands.
During a particularly embarrassing moment of the press conference, Foleman expounded on the Plover Census efforts in recent years. "Let's face it," she admitted. "We had our heads in the sand. It was hard enough to grow close to a species that we always thought could be extinct in our lifetime. Counting piping plovers took a depressingly short amount of time, which just added to the sadness for bird aficionados everywhere."
Foleman defended those who have spent the majority of their lifetime protecting the plover habitat with only the best intentions in mind. However, "this benevolence has backfired into a dangerous situation with the potential to ruin up to 15 percent of the Island's shores," she concluded.
There have been a variety of contributing factors for this dismal situation, notably the Norton Point Beach erosion of 2007, which destroyed a substantial nesting ground and consolidated the plovers into dense groups. These groups went on to produce the three most prolific mating seasons since the passing of the Migratory Bird Proliferation Treaty Act in 1918.
The Act, passed after excessive hunting for the millinery trade almost eradicated the species, has caused a snowball effect over time, turning a slow and steady resurgence into a something like an infestation. Unfortunately, current environmental protection laws are so insurmountable that even a large resurgence of hats in women's fashion would do nothing to replicate that old style of population control.
Ornithologists will convene in Mashpee this weekend to discuss how to quell the upcoming migration without hurting our federally protected dunes. One unconventional proposal involves the legalization of a month long piping plover hunting season. Due to the heavy recreational use of the beaches combined with the fragile ecology, the only safe way to carry this out appears to be to enlist local fishermen to turn their backs to the ocean for a change and "fish out" the birds.
A Falmouth man, who wished to remain anonymous due to past illegal poaching of piping plovers, explained how their eggs are actually among the tastiest delicacies of all poultry. Fisherman could sell these eggs to local chefs, therefore stimulating the local economy and the living local movement.
While the C.C.A.C. struggled to comment on any alternative methods, they warned against panic because, of course, there is one overarching default solution. "What one can do," said Foleman, "is realize that I do not exist and you are reading the April Fool's edition of the Martha's Vineyard Times. Now make sure to breathe a long sigh of relief and vow to love forever, and never, ever mess with the piping plover."
Charlie Nadler, an Oak Bluffs native, now lives and works in Los Angeles.