It’s June on Cape Cod, which means that it’s time for people to start squawking a little louder about Piping Plovers. These small, sand-colored local residents have been nesting on our beaches for eons, but in modern times they have come into conflict with certain forms of human recreation, and as a result have become “fauna non grata” among some people. And for those us who work to monitor and protect these federally Threatened birds, this negative perception of plovers can make for some bad days at work.
Most our public interactions around nesting plovers are positive, and most people are understanding and even appreciative of our efforts. But we also hear a good number of gripes. Some of the anti-plover rhetoric is a little puzzling. The typical beach on Cape Cod either has no nesting plovers and hence no restrictions, or, if there are plovers nesting in the area, there is some string fencing around parts of the upper beach to protect the nesting habitat. The average person, who does not drive on the beach, and who in my experience does not like to venture far from the parking lot, is generally not inconvenienced by the habitat protections.
So what’s the cause of the bad PR for these birds who are just trying to raise their kids so they can get back to the Bahamas before winter? On the small minority of Cape beaches where off-road vehicles are allowed, driving is often restricted starting in June when the eggs start to hatch. Plover chicks and vehicles don’t mix well - they can’t fly and like to hide in tire ruts making them vulnerable to being run over. If you’ve paid for your oversand permit and are looking to get your truck or camper out on the beach, you don’t want to be told you can’t drive out to your favorite spot because of some fuzzy baby birds.
Some new management techniques are helping to defuse some of the conflicts over beach driving. Special permits are allowing towns like Orleans to keep over sand trails open to vehicles even when plover chicks are present. Permit holders must watch videos training them to walk in front of the vehicles and check for plover chicks. Since many of the college bros are out on the beach to look for chicks anyway, I suspect those guys pick up this skill especially quickly.
Along with the beach buggy crowd, dog walkers are probably the other user group most frustrated by restrictions to protect the birds. While there are restrictions on dogs at certain beaches to protect nesting plovers, the reality is that most towns heavily restrict pets on beaches during the summer anyway for reasons that have nothing to do with plovers. Some towns ban pets on beaches year-round for public health reasons. But there are sections of beach that would otherwise be open where protecting the nesting plovers may require restrictions on dogs, which frustrates the dog folks. As a dog person, I get it – one of my favorite things in the world is to take my dog on a long hike. But the reality is that there are many places to do that in my area where there are no nesting plovers. It’s just a matter of finding your local dog walking spots where you won’t be running afoul of the local bylaws.
Whatever your position is on the plover issue, I encourage you to chat up the local shorebird monitoring staff if you encounter them on the beach. They can answer your questions about management of your beach, and given that they often take a lot of flak for very little pay, they could probably use a positive interaction. And they might even be able to show you some adorable and fuzzy little babies that may just change your mind about Piping Plovers.
Mark Faherty is science coordinator at Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.