Can This Tiny Bird Save New York?

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Aug. 23 2013 12:03 PM

Can the Plover Save New York?

Unexpected lessons from an endangered shorebird.

Piping plover photographed at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, March 28, 2010.
A piping plover at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, N.J., in 2010

Photo courtesy of Don Freiday/USFWS/Flickr

Walking the Long Island, N.Y., beach one afternoon in mid-March, I watched two birds race from the water's edge. Snow had fallen during the weekend, and even my wife, a dedicated Vermonter, turned her back on the Atlantic wind, heading for shelter. But these avian puffs seemed unfazed by the hard haze of sand blowing off the shore. As I approached, they flurried away, hit the icy snow, and tried to disguise themselves in the tattered remnants of the strand.

“No pain, no death is more terrible to a wild creature than its fear of man,” J. A. Baker wrote in his classic, The Peregrine. How often is our first sighting of an animal as it flees? A hawk tears itself from a leafless tree. A wood frog backs into an ephemeral pond with an alarmed “yikes!” At the approach of a boat, a right whale suddenly remembers it’s left something on the horizon. A glass lizard is so eager to get off the trail I’ve taken on a prairie in Florida that, when I reach down to examine it, it leaves a flesh-colored tail wiggling in my hand. Only the live oaks, rooted, remain.

“We are the killers,” Baker wrote. “We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.”

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Looking as if they had been molded of sand and feathers, the pair of piping plovers kept up a worried pace, flitting upslope then back to the intertidal. The barrier beach I was walking was an island the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes as “unconsolidated sand.” This hadn’t stopped builders from throwing up beach clubs, condominiums, boardwalks, summer bungalows, and million-dollar homes. On the Atlantic coast, these plovers are perhaps the most newsworthy of seaside birds, being among the most rare. They are counted by twos every year: the number of breeding pairs of the threatened species on barrier islands, ocean fronts, bays, and sand bars from North Carolina to Atlantic Canada. In the 1980s, when they were first protected by the Endangered Species Act, plovers were down to 722 pairs. Since then, their numbers have more than doubled. But when plovers fly into town to nest, some coastal residents resent them. Because plovers are both skittish and endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imposes restrictions on beach use wherever they make landfall.

Dead horseshoe crabs littered the sand, like lost helmets from a failed invasion. Offshore, a dragger trawled for fish. At the sea edge, groins—huge stone structures intended to stop the loss of sand—lined up in the water like stranded black whales. The structures only hasten the demise of the island, gathering sand on the updrift side, eroding the land downstream of the longshore currents. Many of the beach’s natural contours, the dunes and beach grasses, had been flattened up to the boardwalk.

 * * *

Hurricane Sandy passed through this area after my icy walk last year, and I revisited it a few weeks after the storm. My mother had evacuated her home on Atlantic Beach, then moved back to deal with a flooded basement and the worries of living close to the shore. I walked down to the beach, which had lost much of the finer sand. To the east, the houses were intact; the lawns still late-autumn green. To the west, workers were emptying homes by the pailful. They piled wet sand on the beach and hoisted rugs, furniture, Sheetrock, and keepsakes onto what was left of patios.

A car is buried in sand that was washed in from Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012 in Long Beach Island, New Jersey.
A car is buried in sand that was washed in from Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 31, 2012, in Long Beach Island, N.J.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

What had made the difference? To the east was a dune system, about 10 feet high, covered with beach grass and a few young pines: a barrier to the storm surge. To the west, the beach resembled a parking lot, graded and regraded over the years, an easy path for any storm with a decent amount of power.

Workers were moving sand and plugging it with beach grass in the area that had been protected from the storm. The winter shorebirds were back on the coast, preoccupied as ever, racing toward the ocean for a quick meal, chased back by the waves. Several Brant geese flew overhead. At the same time, up the beach, some coastal residents were doing what they’ve always done: grading the strand and carelessly encroaching on the dunes. Homeowners who paid for an ocean view were starting to groom their welcome mats for the next storm. As beach geologist Orrin Pilkey once said, “If you can see the ocean, the ocean can see you.”

Some coastal residents resent the restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act to protect threatened shorebirds. But others suspect that piping plovers can help us preserve our shorefront lifestyle—that the land we protect for them can serve as a barrier when the storms come through, protecting human property. It’s a pleasing notion. The truth, however, is more complicated than that.

* * *

“Piping plovers are a hindrance or a bother,” Steve Papa told me a couple of years ago. He is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in charge of piping plover recovery in the area. We were standing on Westhampton Island, a barrier beach on Long Island’s South Shore. Orange flagging tied to thin nylon lines twisted in the sea breeze behind him, marking off areas protected for the plover. “The rhetoric is that the beach has been ‘quarantined.’ ” Despite attempts to save the dunes and the plovers’ nests, though, several homes had gotten permission to lay paths through the beach grass. “We must have the highest handicapped population in the country,” Papa said dryly. “Everybody has to have direct access.”

Habitat destruction is the top cause of bird extinctions across the world. Felis catus comes in second. “Feral cats are a beach manager's nightmare,” Papa said. There are more than 50 million house cats trying to make a living in the wild in the United States, half a million on Long Island alone.

New York was probably once home to thousands of breeding pairs of piping plovers, before beaches were groomed and off-road vehicles, cats, and foxes destroyed nests. Before protection, only a few seemed to have noticed the bird. Conservationist T. Gilbert Pearson was one, writing in his 1917 Birds of America, “Somehow the sea-beach hardly seems fully genuine without it.” They were rare, of course, but they also had a stunning ability to camouflage themselves in the sand, like feathers caught in the drift. For the past few decades, everyone on Westhampton Island has known about the birds.

In November 1992, a four-day storm breached this barrier island, splitting it and leaving some homes cut off from the mainland. The beach “repair,” costing more than $47 million, was the most expensive in New York’s history at the time.

The people in charge of beach renourishment used plovers to justify the dredging and dumping of new sand, claiming it would help restore shorebird habitat. “The trouble is,” Papa told me, “plovers kind of like what the Corps of Engineers is trying to prevent.” Plovers depend on beach breaks, on unshackled land with sparse vegetation before predators—raccoons, foxes, opossums, rats, and cats, often subsidized with pet food by local residents—move in from the mainland. “The birds would love the freedom of a dynamic barrier beach, not one hemmed in by dredges and groins,” Papa said.

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