Winded from hiking back from the beach, I noticed a woman in the parking lot getting out of her car with a baby … and a dog. She struggled, maneuvering the child into a backpack, while holding the dog’s leash. I hesitated. Should I go talk with her? This was my first day volunteering with BiodiversityWorks, a conservation organization founded by wildlife biologist Dr. Luanne Johnson. I had spent the morning learning about protecting nesting piping plovers, and one of our missions was to educate people, especially those with dogs, about their impact on the tiny birds.
OK, hold it right there. I know. You’re annoyed because your favorite beach is closed to vehicles. You don’t understand what all the fuss is about. These aren’t majestic bald eagles or exotic ivory-billed woodpeckers. Piping plover chicks are basically cotton balls with legs. The adults are equally unassuming, under seven inches beak to tail, weighing barely two ounces. But for birdwatchers and biologists, the plover is worthy of loving attention. Considered a “threatened” species, plovers are protected by both state and federal endangered species laws. They are what biologists call “specialists,” meaning they depend on a very specific habitat to feed and reproduce — a habitat that human beings have been infringing on more and more every year. Plovers are not occupying our beaches. We are taking over theirs.
Now, I have loved birding since I first studied ornithology in college. (Witness the 1971 vintage binoculars dangling around my neck.) But I am also a dog and cat lover who now spends my days interacting with pet owners. This puts me in a good position to be a mediator between those seeking to protect wildlife and those who just want to play fetch with Fido on the beach. You and your dog have plenty of options for places to play, but piping plovers, well, their biology does not give them the flexibility to nest elsewhere. They return to the Vineyard every year in early spring and set up housekeeping right on the beach, making nests which are basically just “scrapes” in the sand. The couple collect bits of shells to decorate the scrape, which I find oddly endearing. Even if you are looking for them, it’s easy to walk right over these nests. Or right on them.
“My dog is extremely well-behaved,” you protest when confronted with signs mandating dogs be leashed because of plovers nesting. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly.” I believe you. Maybe Fido wouldn’t intentionally injure another creature. But the unintentional harm people and pets cause is another matter. Fido won’t even notice if he smashes a plover egg while chasing Frisbees.
A nest will have one to four eggs. Both parents sit on the nest until the chicks hatch, at around 26 days. Organizations working to protect plover nests will often put up “symbolic fencing” — basically some twine attached to posts defining that family’s territory, and signs announcing “Area Closed, Threatened Birds Nesting.” Here’s Doggy Problem No. 1: Fido can’t read. Problem Two: Twine is, well, just twine. It won’t keep Fido out of the area. “But Fido won’t bother the nest!” you protest again. Problem Three: Even if that’s true, the plovers don’t know that.
Just that morning while we were searching for a particular nest, Mama Plover reacted dramatically, sounding the alarm that we were too close — a high-pitched peeping. (Hence “piping” plover.) Then she flapped along the ground, dragging one wing, staggering across the sand. This is the “broken wing display.” It’s fascinating to watch, but actually means the bird is incredibly stressed, terrified her young are in danger. She is trying to distract you and lead you away. But this makes her vulnerable to real predators, and also means she has to be off her nest. Sitting unprotected in the sun puts eggs at risk of overheating. Just 15 minutes can kill an embryo. The unattended nest is also open to predation from critters like skunks, crows, and cats.
In certain situations, biologists erect large wire cages around nests, called exclosures. These protect eggs from predators, but adult birds will still get unduly stressed when you or Fido come too close. For a piping plover parent, a dog running along the beach is like a five-alarm fire. Studies have shown the presence of pets near their nests upset plovers far more than the presence of humans. Once hatched, the tiny flightless birds soon leave the exclosures and totter back and forth between water’s edge and vegetation farther inland. They are as invisible as sand-colored, dandelion puffballs blowing across the beach, and Fido can crush a chick before he even knows it’s underfoot.
So, please. The plovers were here first. This is the habitat they need to reproduce. They invest enormous time and energy to raise a single successful brood, which takes about 60 days from start to finish. If their brood doesn’t survive, they may try again, two, even three, times. The more we help them succeed, the sooner beaches can be open for all human recreation. Here’s how you can help. From April 1 to August 15, keep cats indoors if you’re near the beach. Keep dogs leashed and away from nesting areas. Stay out of fenced areas. Obey posted signs. Never chase or pick up chicks. Don’t feed gulls or crows near nesting areas. Take away food and trash that may attract predators. To volunteer, email BiodiversityWorks at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Trustees of Reservations southeast ecology assistant, Caitlin Borck, at email@example.com.
I offered to hold the dog while the mother put the baby in the backpack, but she had it down to an art. I started my spiel about keeping her dog leashed and away from the nests, but the woman jumped right in. “No problem,” she agreed heartily, well aware of the plight of the piping plovers. “We just walk in the woods this time of year,” she concluded, then thanked me for my efforts. No, I thought, thank you.