For quite a few years I worked for Cape Cod National Seashore on its shorebird project, studying and protecting nesting terns and plovers. It was always with trepidation that I stepped inside an “enclosed area”- delineated with “symbolic fencing”-posts and twine lines with surveyor’s tape-the domain of one of our subject birds, the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodius).
Outside these areas, all is trammeled: car tracks and ruts, myriad footprints, and quite a bit of trash on the beach. But inside, ducking under the twine, I enter an area inviolate, for the most part. And this presents itself most forcefully in the beautiful texture of the sand: fine-grained, mixed with- peppered with- mica, in undulating ripples that reflect the work of the wind.
And on the sand template stories are laid down. Coyote tracks crisscross the upper beach, so that you can almost see the animal come up over the dune, hungry. There are tracks of crows, scraping the hallux behind, and gulls, and others.
But how to describe the fine prints of the Piping Plover? First of all that the bird even leaves an impression in the sand is a wonder, given that it weighs barely two ounces. But their tracks are everywhere, either as a straight line or a complex of interwoven tracks. The latter look like crosshatching of fabric. And the male’s high step shows a wavery line, like a toy truck, pushed over the sand.
In April and early May, as part of the courtship and mating process, the male makes a series of scrapes in the sand, until the female finally chooses one. The ritual is recorded on the sand: lovely little cups, often on a slight mound or rise of beach, often near a stick, a bottle, or other debris, and sometimes decorated with bits of shell. And all around these scrapes, and between them, are the tiny hieroglyphic markings created by Piping Plover feet. It makes me think, for some reason, of the memory holes the Native Americans showed the Pilgrims on one of their trails near Plymouth. But of course, they are more ephemeral.
Being in an enclosed area like that is being in wilderness, however close to civilization you are. These birds have their only reality, different from ours, but worth a bit of focus.
Seeing an animal in a zoo, even the best of zoos, is like watching a video of a play. It is a documentation, nothing more. Not seeing a tiger, while standing in the spooky tall grass of its Asian habitat, provides more tigern-ess than the bold black and white and orange striped face pressed against the plexiglass in the zoo. An ORV driver at a public hearing years ago had it all wrong. Why not collect the Piping Plover eggs, he asked, and artificially incubate them, and raise the young on farms, and then release them somewhere ( somewhere else, of course)? You could have all the plovers you want, he said.
The point of plover management is not plovers. It is plovers on beaches. A plover without sand under its feet is unthinkable. A summer beach without a plover is vastly incomplete.