Tisbury closes Tashmoo Beach to protect piping plovers

A piping plover nest. The coloration provides perfect camouflage. — Photo courtesy of Mass Audubon

The town of Tisbury Monday closed Lake Tashmoo Beach to protect a pair of nesting piping plovers and their four eggs. Because the incubation period is between 25 and 27 days the beach will likely remain closed to vehicles and beach-goers until mid-June.

Once the chicks hatch, the family is expected to move to the Tashmoo bay side and mud flats to feed, according to shorebird monitors, allowing the beach to reopen. However, in the unlikely event the birds continue to use the roadway and parking area, the closure would continue until the chicks are able to fly, sometime in mid-July.

Tashmoo Beach is popular with families because there is a lifeguard, and swimming conditions are generally calm. The beach fronts on Vineyard Sound and there is access to shallow pond flats.

The jetty that borders the narrow channel that links the pond to Vineyard Sound is also popular with fishermen and sightseers. And the easily reached flats, scheduled to reopen this month, are popular for shellfishing.

On Monday, Tisbury department of public works crews erected a barrier at the end of Herring Creek Road, the long, rough dirt road that ends at Tashmoo Beach. Crews also posted “beach closed” signs at the road entrance and along access points alerting the public to the beach closure.

The plovers are designated as threatened under the state and federal versions of the Endangered Species Act. Penalties for any disturbance, or a failure to adequately protect the birds, are severe, and there is little wiggle room for beachfront communities that must often restrict the activities of visitors and residents on prime beach areas.

One unknown factor is the role of natural predation. Skunks, raccoons, crows, and gulls pose a continuous threat to the eggs and young chicks.

Beach closures to protect nesting shore birds including plovers and terns from human disturbance are not new on Martha’s Vineyard. Each spring, public and private land managers erect hundreds of feet of rope barriers to fence off likely nesting sites. Miles of Chappaquiddick are often closed to off-road vehicles (See related story).

What is unusual is the location. This pair of plovers passed up long stretches of relatively undisturbed shorefront, including a private beach on the west side of Tashmoo where birds are under observation, to nest on the shoulder of the road close to the beach parking lot entrance and just past two summer cottages.

Monday morning Liz Baldwin, a shorebird monitor working for Biodiversity Works, a private monitoring group observing birds on the west side of Tashmoo opening, spotted the nest along the side of the road and alerted Mass Audubon, which voluntarily monitors the Tashmoo Beach site. Suzan Bellincampi, Mass Audubon Felix Neck Sanctuary director, contacted Scott Melvin, a zoologist with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, a small agency with powerful clout that is responsible for enforcing species protection laws.

After hearing a detailed description of where the nest is located Mr. Melvin said the road must be closed to protect the birds.

Late Monday morning Fred LaPiana, Tisbury DPW superintendent, Jane Varkonda, Tisbury conservation commission agent, and Ms. Bellincampi met at Tashmoo to discuss the situation and the best course of action.

The decision was made to close the beach and erect a barrier to vehicles. Fencing was also erected on the channel side to keep beachgoers from disturbing the nest.

In a telephone conversation with The Times Tuesday morning, Mr. LaPiana said he has learned a lot about the habits of the piping plover and its sensitivity to disturbances in the last several days. He said what he learned from Mr. Melvin is to keep vehicles and pedestrians away from the nest a distance of 300-feet. “We learned quite a bit about the sensitivity and how fragile the nest is of the piping plover and how it cannot be disturbed,” Mr. LaPiana said. “It leaves the nest because of those disturbances and we have to be very sensitive to those issues so that is what we are trying to do.”

Geoghan Coogan, chairman of the Tisbury board of selectmen, said the selectmen are disappointed with the timing of the beach closure and the likelihood that it will extend into the summer months. “But we do not have any choice given the regulations concerning piping plovers other than to close this area,” he said in an email to The Times. “What we will do is make sure that the situation is monitored daily, so that as soon as the birds have moved on, we can open the beach back up immediately.”

Ms. Bellincampi said she has spoken to the owners of the last two cottages who will continue to have access to their houses. “They were incredibly supportive,” she said.

Ms. Bellincampi, a member of the Tisbury conservation commission, said that ultimately the decision to close the beach rested with the town. “We protect the birds,” she said. “Our job is to provide advice and assistance to landowners, towns and other beach managers as to how they can follow the guidelines and protect themselves.”

She said that in the past the plovers have nested in the dunes and fed on the bay side. Mass Audubon has erected fencing to limit disturbance but there was no need for a closure.

Luanne Johnson, director of Biodiversity Works, a grant-funded nonprofit wildlife monitoring and research organization that has been monitoring birds on the west-side of Tashmoo and other private beaches, said recent inclement weather might have led the plovers to pick a site that they might normally shy away from because of human disturbance. “Places look attractive that normally would not,” she said.

Ms. Johnson described the road closure as “an emergency situation.” She said that in all likelihood the birds would move to the bay side and officials would be able to reopen access. She said people share the beaches with shorebirds around the Island. “People and plovers are not mutually exclusive,” she said.