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The Plight Of The Plover At Cape Cod National Seashore

Student Conservation Association interns worked on Cape Cod National Seashore this summer to educate beach-goers on piping plovers, a threatened shorebird. SCA photo.

Editor's note: In our occasional series of stories examining what interns with the Student Conservation Association are up to, we caught up with Theresa Conn, who spent time at Cape Cod National Seashore working to protect piping plovers, their nests, eggs, and fledglings. Here's a look at her experience.

It was early morning on Cape Cod National Seashore. I was walking cautiously along the beach with three shorebird biologists trained in avian behaviors. We were looking for signs of piping plovers, which are federally threatened shorebirds that nest all over Cape Cod.

It was my ninth day at work as a Shorebird Conservation Intern, and already I felt like I knew what I was doing. However, it was early, and I felt my mind drifting.

“Theresa, freeze!” yelled Dennis, my supervisor. Like a child playing a game, I stiffened immediately without even a thought. My right foot was raised in the air, only inches above the ground.

“Do you see it? You’re pretty close to a scrape,” Dennis said, both chastising and understanding.

I looked around but saw nothing. Finally, I spied the small, sand-colored piping plover egg lying in a hidden nest in the ground, about five feet away. At that point, I realized how easy it would be for someone to step on a nearly invisible nest by accident. After all, piping plovers, shorebirds that are fighting extinction, have a hard enough time staying alive without me crushing their eggs.

Piping Plover Boot Camp

My first month on the Cape was essentially "piping plover boot camp." I shadowed shorebird techs as they traveled the beach looking for birds, nests, and eggs. I found scrapes (nests) on my own, watched adorable chicks stumble around the beach, and sledge-hammered six-foot fencing posts into the sand.

The underlying reason for the plover’s decline on the East Coast has been the growing number of people visiting the coastline.

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A piping plover. USFWS photo.

On Cape Cod, habitat loss has also been a primary problem, with increasing shoreline development and tourism. The presence of people near plover nesting areas may cause the birds to abandon their nests, exposing their eggs to the hot sun and predators.

Many predator populations have increased by taking advantage of human-provided foods. The more people that go to the beach, the more trash there is; the more trash there is, the more crows and coyotes there are. This has resulted in unnaturally high predation pressure to nests, chicks, and adults.

Beginning in May, field technicians all over the East Coast go out to the beach daily looking for tracks, birds, and scrapes (nests). Once a scrape is found, the shorebird team erects fencing to warn the public that they are near a nesting area. To protect the plovers from predation, exclosures are put up around nests. Exclosures are essentially flexible cages that allow plovers to come and go from their nests as they please but keep out predators.

Educating The Public

One of their biggest problems has been public outrage about conservation practices. From early March to mid-August, areas of the beach may be closed off for recreation to accommodate shorebird nesting. This can be very frustrating for some beachgoers. Some adults will disregard the fencing and continue walking, putting eggs and plover chicks in danger. In extreme circumstances, such as with repeat offenders, we get help from the park rangers.

Fortunately, it rarely gets to that point. Kids, on the other hand, are fun and receptive. I’ll never forget the look of awe in a child’s eyes when they hold an abandoned plover egg. In an age of computers and video games, young people rarely get the chance to step outside and really experience the world around them.

National parks are vital for this reason; each park is a small oasis of nature where kids can unplug. Whether it’s searching for minuscule piping plover eggs at Cape Cod National Seashore or scaling Half Dome at Yosemite, the National Park System offers invaluable experiences for young people.

One of the most common questions asked is, “What do the piping plovers do for me?” In abstract, it would appear that the answer is nothing. The disappearance of the little birds on Cape Cod beaches would go unnoticed by the average beachgoer. However, in reality, piping plovers are canaries in the coal mine. The gradual disappearance of the piping plover population is an indication that our human presence on Cape Cod National Seashore has had a negative impact on the environment.

At what point do we intervene and right our wrongs? If we let the plovers go extinct, what species is next?

My time with SCA on Cape Cod has redirected and shaped my future career goals. I grew up with a desire to be a teacher, but I didn’t want to live my entire life in a classroom. I’ve now learned that teachers come in all different forms, and that nature is one of our best classrooms.

Traveler footnote: A version of this article was originally published by Inquiry, the online undergraduate research journal of the University of New Hampshire.

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Meanwhile, wait for the angry comments from folks who want to drive up and down the beach in their vehicles.

Also, NPS Digest this morning reports that sea turtle hatchlings at Cape Hatteras have increased tremendously this year following a court order that prevents driving on the beach during their nesting season.

Fabulous article, thank you for posting this!

It seems that habitat has taken a nose dive this year while funding has taken massive cuts.... What is going on here?

Kurt, second the "moonpie' post, simply a great article by Theresa Conn. Lays the issue out extremely well. For those who have not watched the Ken Burns series. "Our National Parks", well they will be in for a treat. It is not a travelog, it is basically a history of the conservation movement here in the United States and addresses many of the comments on the "Taveler" website. Thank you Theresa Conn for the article and your efforts at Cape Cod.

Where do you get this false information? The predators are the largest threat to the birds and people keep the predators away. (predators which by the way have almost all but vanished so mysteriously)

The nesting areas are roped off and unless you are with a 'conservationist' there is no way that you will encounter the situation as described here because you cannot get close enough to the area to accidentally step on anything.

The biggest reason for fail of these birds to thrive right now is mother nature. Late storms with rising waters and other animals that are hungry are the leading cause for the limited numbers of these birds.

Check to see how many people are actually to blame for these birds being destroyed, then repost your article.

I want to see these birds thrive as much as the next person, and there is a way to do it successfully. In Canada the birds are taken into captivity for a period and they thrive and increase in number. Why can't that be done here? It would be a much better way to spend money rather than pay conservationist to babysit them only to see the eggs be washed away when high tides from storms come around.

Anon, for what it's worth:




"Meanwhile, wait for the angry comments from folks who want to drive up and down the beach in their vehicles."

Thank you Mr Dalton for adding such an ignorant and useless comment, but I guess it's just eaiser to point fingers.

It's ironic that so many of us who use this ORV corridor belong to groups such as the MBBA, which PROMOTES the conservation and responsible use of these beaches. Specific to Massachusetts beaches, how many other groups or conservation interns head out onto the beaches each Spring to pick up tons of garbage that has washed up over the Winter? Do the State Biologists take trash bags with them and pick up garbage while they make their rounds? I honestly don't know. But I certainly know that it would not only be arrogant, but also ignorant for me to say that they don't; just because I have personally never witnessed it in the last 10 years. Not only do we pack out what we take in, but many of us also pick up trash from others that has either washed ashore or blown away from the "walk on" beach at Race Point! Please don't get me wrong, this isn't just about picking up trash beach.

This is about arriving at a MUTUAL RESPECT for the ways in which ALL OF US responsibly use and appreciate one of our most spectacular natural resources. It's also about ensuring that we address ALL of the potential items that may have an impact on Plover populations, instead of constantly pointing the finger at those of us who drive on the beach!

It's curious that research on Plover mortality rates directly attributed to the previously accepted practice of placing aluminum bands on birds legs, was never pursued. But it's good to know that this practice has been stopped since over 50 individuals were observed with severe leg injuries attributed to bands between '85 - '89. Biologist's & Conservationist's are up in arm's if a single Plover chick is disturbed in an ORV Corridor, yet apparently it's OK for them to maim countless individuals over a four year span... ( Page 158)

How about disclosing other possible threats to the population? The same report cited above identifies potential mortality concerns over the construction of proposed Wind Turbines. But I guess this is our fault too in that we all drive gas guzzling 4WD vehicles...

Give me a break Mr. Dalton. It's about time that EVERYONE realizes that all of us who responsibly use and appreciate the ORV Corridors are taken out of the spotlight as being the major problem here! Take off your blinders and realize that beach conservation and protection is our main concern as well! Personally, I'm grateful for the organizations which continue to fight for beach access.

After all, isn't that why CCNS was created in the first place? To ensure that all future generations could experience those beaches in their natural state? I really don't think severe restrictions and/or total lack of beach access was what The Kennedy Administration had in mind...

Open your eyes Mr. Dalton!

John Nathan

We didn't have to wait very long, Lee.

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