A Beach Nester Scrapbook
Compiled by Todd Pover, Beach Nesting Bird Project Manager
The Beach Nesting Bird Project is one of our major initiatives here at the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. During the spring and summer months, we employ several field technicians to help us carry out our mission of monitoring and protecting endangered piping plovers, least terns, and black skimmers, as well as American oystercatchers. We also help oversee the seasonal staff from the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program on this project.
As a slight change of pace for a blog, I thought it would be both fun and insightful to hear a little bit of their perspective from the field. So, I asked everyone from the joint beachnester crew to submit a short entry about what they like and dislike most about the project, as well as a favorite or unique photo. I will kick it off with my thoughts…Because the main goal of the project is to recover at-risk species, obviously the most satisfying aspect of the project is when the birds have a successful year. But that isn’t always the case, so my personal favorite thing is finding the first piping plover nests of the season. Aside from the challenge of actually locating the well-camouflaged nests, those first eggs embody the eternal hope of each new season. Early in the season, before spring tides wash away eggs, predators discover helpless chicks, and the crush of beachgoers squeezes out colonies, you still believe every nest will successfully produce young.We interact with the public on a daily basis on this project and for the most part we meet nice people. But we also deal with our share of people who do not support the effort. Our motto is “share the shore” and, in fact, only a small percentage of our state’s coastline is protected for beach nesting birds and many of the restriction put in place to help the birds are seasonal in nature. Nonetheless, the “plover fence” brings out the worst in some people, and when that anger is directed at you personally it can be pretty unpleasant and frustrating.
My favorite part of our work is spending time in nature doing science to promote the continued existence of these amazing birds. The time outdoors is a reward unto itself, but to be able to do as work what many consider leisure activities (walking the beach, boating, kayaking, hiking, bird watching, etc.) in pursuit of important scientific knowledge and in support of our critical wildlife conservation mission is both a privilege and an additional pleasure.
The part of our job that I dislike the most is watching the weather and tides and then not being able to sleep worrying about the fates of the nests that we know are in jeopardy of failure due to tidal and weather related flooding. We do our best to improve the chances of nest survival during these events by raising some nests within their predator exclosures several inches, but often Mother Nature is not to be denied and nests are swept away anyway by the rising waters. It can be quite a downer knowing that despite our best efforts nest failure is an inescapable part of the life cycle of these birds. As Charles Darwin put it, “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature!”
My favorite part of the job is hearing the initial “Peep!” of a piping plover, usually followed by the little sand-colored bird scooting across the sand.
My least favorite part of the job is witnessing how difficult it can be for beach nesters to succeed despite our best efforts.
My like is going to a site the day that a piping plover is due to fledge (25 days from hatch) and seeing it there, healthy and strong! After watching so many eggs/chicks succumb to floods, predators and a whole host of other roadblocks, it is incredibly satisfying to see the ones that beat the odds.
My dislike is sitting at home the night of a storm, a full moon high tide, or, worst of all, a storm on a full moon high tide and knowing we are losing eggs and chicks by the second. There is very little we can do about it and I hate the feeling of helplessness. This is followed by a very close second, which is going out the next morning and surveying the damage.
What I enjoy – getting the opportunity to get “intimate” with the birds. It’s very helpful to just sit and watch the birds and figure out what all the subtle behaviors mean during the courtship and nesting period. This understanding is beneficial to management of the birds and when educating the public.
What I also enjoy – I love encountering people on the beach that are excited by the birds. I recently spoke with two women that were watching the least tern colony at Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park in Monmouth County. They could see the chicks with their naked eyes, but I offered the use of my binoculars and they were just awed by the birds! The women were just fascinated to see the parents feeding the chicks, watching the chicks take cover under the goldenrod for shade, and to see them flapping their wings in an attempt to fly. It really made my day to talk to them and to hear how much they respect what our program does to protect the birds.
What I dislike – TICKS!! Especially when I find one hours later on myself!
Early in the season it’s thrilling to search for potential nesting locations. The beach at first glance appears desolate until you discover what seems like a billion pigeon-toed tracks indicating that plovers are nearby! As if out of a detective story, you follow the tracks carefully looking and listening for signs of nesting. If you are lucky you are the first to discover a new nest, otherwise it’s still wonderful to check back on known locations, monitoring clutch size and checking for hatching.
I dislike most being the fun police. When you inform individuals that dogs are not permitted in the area, the large majority are respectful and unaware of the struggle for survival that is happening in front of them. Other times, to say it’s hard and sometimes frustrating is sugarcoating what it takes to try to convey the importance of limiting disturbance. It’s not an easy or pleasurable task but certainly an essential one.
Mary Jean McCann
The best part of the job is the satisfaction you get when you locate a single egg nest in the middle of a shelled beach area and you feel like the winner of the most intense Easter egg hunt.
The least exciting part of the job is when you have to carry all the equipment to a site because you don’t have vehicle access, such as at Stone Harbor Point.
One of my favorite things about working with beach nesting birds is the interesting and diverse people that I get to work with. Everyone is doing this job out of a passion for nature and the environment. Another favorite thing would be watching beach nesting bird parents raise and care for their chicks. I was surprised to see how unique each bird is, in its personality and parenting skills.
My least favorite part of the job would be when people tell me that piping plovers taste like chicken. Basically, to realize that there are many people so disconnected from the natural world around them, is discouraging. But most of the time, when you point out a tiny plover chick, you can’t help but win them over. And then – that would be my favorite part!
My favorite part of the project is probably how diverse the beaches are and how the birds we monitor adapt to each. Some are fine sandy beaches with young forming dunes and a ton of beach traffic where others are fairly secluded full of mature dunes, very shelly, and almost untouched. Being able to observe the ecology of these species in different areas and track their successes and failures is very rewarding.
On the flip side, the most frustrating part of work I encounter is walking a fine line between educating those who simply don’t know about these endangered birds and those who plead ignorance. I find for as many good, complying beach goers I cross paths with, there is typically one disgruntled one who feels a sense of ownership to ‘their’ beach. While frustrating, it’s job security.”
One of my favorite aspects of the project was being able to witness parents giving the “broken-wing display.” Adult piping plovers will pretend to be injured by hanging their wings down and peeping piteously in an attempt to lead predators away from their nests or chicks. I think this display is a beautiful example of just how intelligent these birds can be, something that is often taken for granted.
One of my least favorite experiences this summer was during my patrol of the beach on the 4th of July. During the holiday, the birds are at extreme risk due to large crowds of people, the presence of dogs, and fireworks set off on the beach. As I was monitoring the least tern colony in Townsend’s Inlet, I was confronted with disgruntled residents who wished to set off fireworks. Despite the fact that I informed them that they could still set of their fireworks, at a safe distance from the colony, they continued to argue with me about how much I was inconveniencing them. As I spoke with one gentleman, another had snuck away behind the colony and set off a single firework, directly over the nesting terns. Instances such as these make me wonder why people believe that their two minutes of entertainment are worth more than the well being of an entire colony of least terns. The experience affirmed just how important the work we do to protect these creatures is and how we must work that much harder to educate the public about our reasons for doing so.
My interest in birds started at the age of ten, and it was an easy interest to feed, as I grew up along the shores of Delaware Bay in Cape May County. Among my favorite parts of the “bird year” has always been the summer and its beach nesting birds. Stone Harbor Point in particular was a location where I spent countless hours while growing up, and it is a real treat to be the primary monitor at the site this season. “The Point” is a dynamic place, with its windswept and tide-carved dunes jutting out into Hereford Inlet. It’s an exposed and sometimes brutal landscape, seemingly altered by every nor’easter or full moon tide. Even so, multiple pairs of piping plovers and American oystercatchers still attempt to nest here, and watching these birds go through the entire breeding process under such trying conditions is simply captivating.
The best part of my job happens every day- whether it’s surveying a least tern colony, tracking down an oystercatcher nest, or showing somebody their first piping plover. Likewise, the worst part of my job can also happen every day- when a cat wrecks a least tern colony, the oystercatcher nest washes away, or someone would rather kick sand on a piping plover than enjoy one for the first time. However, the knowledge that our work helps protect birds which would otherwise disappear is extremely satisfying, and makes every single day worth the effort.
Editor’s Note: You may have noticed some patterns in the likes and dislikes presented above; things like sleepless nights worrying about the fate of the birds during stormy weather and frustrations dealing with uncaring beachgoers. Mostly the answers speak to the passion of the staff. As much as I love the birds and the work I do with them here, working together with the staff as a team and sharing our collective passion is absolutely the best part of the project. Every year there is blood, sweat, and a few tears lost in the name of beach nesting bird protection. I can’t thank the staff, past and present, enough for the effort they put forth…Todd