Along the Eastern Seaboard, Piping Plovers are in the midst of nesting season. Buffy adults brood patiently on their nests, which are no more than dimples in the sand. In some places, tiny plover chicks—cotton balls with toothpicks for legs—are already sprinting across the beach, following their parents to forage for worms and bugs.
But soon, this idyllic scene is shattered by stampedes of sweaty humans. If it weren’t for the protections of the Endangered Species Act, the birds wouldn’t stand a chance. (This year marks the 30th anniversary of their listing.) Rather than closing the beaches during nesting season (an unpopular option), federal agencies and conservation groups trust that beachgoers will share the sand with the birds. They encircle breeding areas with string fencing, erect metal cages around each nest, and post educational signs about the birds. This “share the shore” strategy appears to be working: The U.S. Atlantic Piping Plover population has tripled from 550 nesting pairs in 1986 to more than 1,600 pairs today, and is approaching the recovery goal of 2,000 pairs.
But fences made of string can only do so much to protect the birds. Last week, Connecticut officials reported a series of mysterious Piping Plover deaths to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The casualties include a nest of crushed eggs found at Bluff Point State Park, a plover chick killed by an off-leash dog at Griswold Point Preserve, and two adult plovers also found near the preserve, says Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation at Audubon Connecticut. One of the dead adults may be one of the “pink-flagged” birds Audubon’s been tracking from the Bahamas.
USFWS is investigating these deaths (along with reports of nest vandalism in Massachusetts), but it’s too soon to say whether people are to blame. “It’s very rare that we have a loss of an adult plover that we can tie directly to the actions of humans or their pets or their vehicles,” says Comins.“I don’t ever recall anybody stepping on any eggs.”
Yet Piping Plovers are constantly threatened by people, albeit indirectly. As coastlines are developed, urban predators like gulls, raccoons, crows, and foxes soon follow and proliferate, along with pet dogs and cats. These predators gorge on shorebird eggs and chicks when given the opportunity. Rowdy beachgoers can disturb the birds, sometimes so much that they abandon their nests. And then there’s habitat loss: The suitable nesting area for plovers shrinks with every encroaching boardwalk and building, while offshore seawalls prevent tides from bringing in sand to replenish beaches.
“These birds are often living on the edge. It’s a tenuous existence in a perfect world,” says Comins. “There’s a lot of squeeze going on for these birds.”
That's why the loss of a few eggs and adults is worthy of federal investigation. “There are not many of these Atlantic coast Piping Plovers in existence, and so each one really does make a difference,” says Meagan Racey, spokesperson for USFWS. “It has a cascading effect when situations like this happen.”
The recent deaths are unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean beachgoers and plovers are at war. It isn’t hard to avoid nesting areas, whether you’re walking your dog or are feeling adventurous on your own: There are miles and miles of coast to explore. Just in case, keep your dog on its leash, and leave no trash behind to avoid attracting predators. If you see a plover in an area with no signage or fencing, or you see a person or animal interacting with one, contact your local wildlife authorities. And if you’re lucky enough to spot a bird with colored bands on its legs, report it to USFWS.
Piping Plovers aren’t the only ones benefiting here. “These birds make our beaches special places and really enhance our shoreline experience for everybody,” says Comins. “We hope that people take time to enjoy them.”