Every March, usually sometime around St. Patrick’s Day, the first Piping Plover scouts arrive back on Cape Cod beaches. Whether these first arrivals are local nesters or migrants on their way to beaches in further north, they always seem to cause a panic.
The breathless headlines – “Plovers to Shut Down Beaches” – are as dependable as the arriving birds themselves. Ah, the poor beleaguered, unassuming Piping Plover. Among Cape Cod wildlife, perhaps only the Gray Seal is more in need of a good PR firm.
Tiny and sand colored, they come here to raise their chicks on our beaches, where they depend almost entirely on camouflage to avoid hungry-eyed foxes and crows. Their most common predators were either absent or not nearly as common a hundred years ago. Red Foxes were unknown in New England before the mid-19th century, and crows are way more common now thanks to suburbanization of the landscape and the smorgasbord of unnatural food sources we offer them. Coyotes got here even more recently, colonizing our peninsula in the 1970s.
So when you combine intense pressure from humans and dogs with a dramatic increase in the wild predators that eat their eggs and young, Piping Plovers are really up against it. With only a couple thousand left on the Atlantic Coast, the late Scott Melvin, state zoologist for Massachusetts, liked to point out that Piping Plovers are more rare than tigers.
Plover chicks are precocial, meaning that, unlike naked and needy songbird nestlings, they are running around on their own and feeding themselves as soon as they hatch. But the chicks need to be able to move freely between the protective cover of the vegetated upper beach and the rich feeding flats of the intertidal to grow fast enough to fly south on their own come late summer. Too much disturbance can slow their growth and doom the young plovers’ chances of surviving their first migration.
Many don’t realize that protecting Piping Plover nesting areas with a little bit of fencing has other benefits. By preventing the trampling of beach grass, the fenced areas allow the natural development of dunes, which in turn protect the bays, shorelines and coastal homes behind them from the devastating erosion from winter storms. Other species that depend on barrier beaches, including dozens of species of migratory shorebirds also benefit from the habitat protection afforded the plovers.
But there’s no denying that a certain subset of beachgoers, mainly those who like to drive on the small number of beaches where driving is allowed, get their feathers ruffled by what they see as over aggressive plover protection.
For these folks, good news may be on the way. Following the lead of the town of Orleans, other towns and landowners now can apply for a permit under the state Habitat Conservation Plan for Piping Plovers. The goal of this plan is to allow some flexibility in the plover protection guidelines, say by allowing escorted vehicles to drive on a beach with unfledged plover chicks.
In exchange, applicants would provide mitigation funds that are intended to provide a net benefit to nesting plovers through extra habitat protection and predator management.
It remains to be seen whether this new plan will both protect plovers and please the beach buggy crowd, but it seems to be a step in the right direction. It’s up to the state and various conservation organizations to make sure the plan is indeed benefitting plovers. But in terms of public opinion, who knows? With a little luck, in a few years maybe Piping Plovers won’t need that PR firm after all.