In early April of last year, Gloucester, Massachusetts, resident Kim Smith discovered three Piping Plovers had arrived, exhausted, on the city’s Good Harbor Beach. They foraged in the wind and lingering snow, and a pair began courting, the male digging nest scrapes in the sand for his mate’s approval. Piping Plovers typically nest in the sand sheltered by dunes, but for these two, a home on the beach was not to be.
Harassed again and again by loose dogs running on the busy stretch of shore, the pair gave up and fled to the nearby 950-car parking lot. The male dug a scrape in the gravel while the female sat nearby, camouflaged on a white line delineating a parking space. By the middle of May, she’d laid four eggs.
No one knew whether the eggs would even hatch, given this inauspicious start. On a coast where human disturbance and predation are pervasive, Good Harbor hosted a pair of nesting plovers in 2016 and again in 2017. But as Smith and others dedicated to protecting the plovers saw, only one chick survived long enough to learn to fly and begin migrating to its wintering grounds—possibly as far as the Bahamas, 1,200 miles away.
By 2018 the team working to safeguard Good Harbor’s plovers included people generously giving their time to monitor the birds and the crew from the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW), who steered huge beach raking machinery clear of them. Smith, a photographer and filmmaker, had inspired much of the effort. While not everyone can be on the beach every day, her images, videos, and blog offered the entire city an up-close portrait of the birds’ daily lives.
The parking lot nest added a new twist—and yet another challenge for the birds to overcome.
Atlantic coast Piping Plovers were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. Thirty years of vigilance brought them back from the edge of extinction, their populations rebounding from fewer than 800 breeding pairs to what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimates to be about 1,900 in 2017. In Massachusetts, breeding pairs soared from 139 to 650.
These population increases are promising, but the birds’ future isn’t yet secure. “Human disturbance, sea level rise, habitat loss, and a superabundance of predators are eroding Piping Plover recruitment and threaten the survival of adults,” says Walker Golder, director of Atlantic Flyway Coastal Strategy for the National Audubon Society. “The recovery is still on the edge.”
The species’ recovery depends on places like Good Harbor Beach. In New England, Massachusetts hosts three-quarters of the region’s breeding Piping Plovers, and of those breeding in the state, 25 percent nest on beaches that have three or fewer pairs. Gloucester’s day-by-day victories and defeats lay out, in stark relief, the nitty gritty of what it really takes to keep birds safe on an urban beach.
ut in the parking lot that May, people began mobilizing to protect the nesting birds. Dave Rimmer, stewardship director at Essex County’s Greenbelt, a local land trust, placed a wire cage over the nest to ward off gulls, foxes, coyotes, dogs, and other predators, and the DPW blocked off 30 parking spaces with sawhorses to keep cars at bay. A Boston television crew filmed while volunteers kept watch as the plovers took turns incubating the eggs, the other roosting nearby or flying off to feed. Late in the afternoon on Friday, June 8, the first chick hatched. By Saturday morning there were four. A wide expanse of hot, unshaded pavement separated them from the beach, where soft sand, wrack, and dune grass offer cover from predators and wet, fertile tidal flats supply abundant food.
The DPW, a biologist from the state wildlife agency, and the plover patrol volunteers convened to provide the chicks safe passage to the sand. As they began their trek, the DPW cordoned off more of the lot. Volunteer Heather Hall spent a tense day observing as the chicks left the nest in fits and starts, venturing out and then retreating, then advancing and retreating again. She saw them, exhausted by the heat, “plopping down in mid-stride, and falling asleep.” The family spent the night in the lot, but by the next afternoon, they finally made the crossing, disappearing into the dunes, then spilling onto the beach in the same area where the parents had been courting earlier. Everyone was jubilant.
For Piping Plovers, reproductive success is measured by whether the chicks live long enough to fly, usually in 25 to 35 days. The next few weeks on the beach would be critical. Scientists studying survival of chicks on barrier beaches in New York found that 82 percent successfully fledge on uncrowded beaches, versus only 19 percent on heavily-used ones.
Out on the beach, Rimmer had roped off the bird’s roosting area and added signs warning people away, but as the days warmed, crowds pressed chairs, towels, and coolers up against the ropes, their umbrellas, soccer balls, loose plastic bags, and food containers blowing inside. While many respected the protected area, others, ignoring the signs, jumped the ropes. Hordes of gulls, drawn to food and garbage strewn in the sand, snatched donuts and sandwiches, broke open bags of chips, and stalked the chicks, whose parents frantically feigned broken wings to distract the gulls. Early in the morning before the lifeguards arrived, and late afternoon when they left, dogs ran on the sand—despite a seasonal ban beginning on May 1—and the plovers’ roost filled with their tracks.
Amid the throng of visitors, the corps of some 25 volunteers took shifts between dawn and dusk to protect the plovers. I joined them. We kept track of the chicks, camouflaged by their gray, black, and beige plumage. We answered question after question from curious beachgoers as the baby birds scurried across the sand, ran to rest beneath their parents, or, after the adults “piped” out a warning of a dangerously close gull, nose-dived into the seaweed. We shared our binoculars as people began falling in love with the baby birds. When the tide ebbed and the chicks dashed to feed on the wet sand, we formed a protective corridor to ease them through the gauntlet of people, balls, and dogs.
Good Harbor’s baby Piping Plovers didn’t make it. On day three, a volunteer arrived on the beach just after dawn to find one chick missing. Later that day, a low-flying gull snatched another. Just a few days later, a crow took the third. At the end of June, the last chick, hunkered down in the sand with its parents as night fell, was gone by the morning. Barely two and a half weeks old, it was just learning to fly. With heavy hearts we broke the news to beachgoers as that day and the next, and the next, the lone father stood in the sand, still calling for his family.
any things went right on Good Harbor Beach during the summer of 2018—and many people worked together to ease the birds’ way—but with no chicks surviving, there was more to do.
Dogs are a big part of the problem. “Disturbance by humans and dogs is a continuing widespread and severe threat,” finds the FWS, creating what Rutgers University conservation biologist Brooke Maslo calls a “landscape of fear” for the birds. As a result, adult Piping Plovers, the FWS cautions, “may leave their eggs, stop feeding, and waste precious time and energy on distraction displays.” On a beach in Santa Barbara, California, dogs disturbing birds forced more than 70 percent to fly away. And scientists studying shorebird disturbance on five New Jersey beaches found that dogs were the “prime” factor. Even if dogs don’t chase birds, they might accidentally crush an egg or chick. Meanwhile, chicks, if frightened, spend less time on intertidal flats where food is best, less time foraging—as much as 50 percent less—and they eat more slowly. Consequently, they grow more slowly and fewer survive.
Leash laws aren’t always the answer: When they aren’t enforced, studies on Nebraska’s shorebird beaches show compliance is low. Many owners don’t realize plovers react as if all dogs are predators—even their most well-behaved, small pets.
Maslo’s research in New Jersey suggests one reason why Good Harbor Beach wasn’t yet safe enough for plovers, despite Gloucester’s progress. Suitable beach nesting habitat, she finds, more than doubles when managers install fencing proactively, before the birds arrive, refrain from raking the area with large machinery, and prohibit dogs from the beach. Waiting to restrict access until the birds begin nesting, she concludes, doesn’t work.
After the last chick on Good Harbor Beach disappeared, Gloucester began preparing for this year’s nesting season. Its unpaid Animal Advisory Committee had spent many hours on the beach observing the problems facing the plovers, and many more researching solutions. Despite opposition from local dog owners, the committee recommended that the city add one month to its seasonal dog prohibition on Good Harbor Beach—banning dogs beginning on April 1 (instead of May 1)—and increase fines for violating the dog ordinance from $50 to $300.
In February, before a packed auditorium, the city council unanimously passed these changes—a pivotal step forward. With a solid legal foundation in place, the city could now focus on critical elements of consistent enforcement, public outreach, and education.
As soon as the Piping Plovers returned this year, at the end of March, Rimmer installed fencing and signage alerting people to the plovers, the DPW posted the new dog ordinance, and Massachusetts Audubon came to speak about plover ecology. Smith continued to blog and photograph, and volunteers again took to the beach.
Still, as the weather warmed, unleashed dogs once again forced the birds to the parking lot. This time, the city immediately stepped up enforcement: dog officers walked the beach and issued tickets. The number of dogs on Good Harbor Beach dramatically declined, the plovers returned, and by May 5, to everyone’s joy and relief, they were incubating four eggs in the sand.
Gloucester took monumental steps to protect Good Harbor’s plovers this year, and Smith now feels hopeful for the future of “this surprisingly tough, resilient, and beautiful” shorebird. “It takes time and patience to effect change" she says, "and we have come a very long way in four years.”
Now, more than ever, there’s a groundswell of support in Gloucester to share its shore, with both plovers and people. Perhaps this year, with a little luck, and rigorous enforcement of the litter ordinance, a few chicks will thrive, fatten up at sea edge, test their growing wings, and as summer peaks, lift off to begin their fall migration.