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Dedicated to Henry Beston's literary classic, The Outermost House, and the spirit of life on the Great Outer Beach of Cape Cod

Attack of the Piping Plovers




PIPING PLOVERS hover just overhead, angry
that their area of the beach is being
disturbed -- despite the fact that the Cape
Cod National Seashore says it's OK to walk
on a designated path from the beach to
Nauset Marsh. (Photos by Don Wilding)

 

BY DON WILDING
Filed June 21, 2002

For several years, the Cape Cod National Seashore has posted signs warning beachgoers to stay off the dunes because of the threat posed to shorebirds.

"Protecting Shorebirds" states the sign that greets one at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. "Beach-nesting birds (tern and plover) must have quiet stretches of beach for their young to hatch and grow. People and their activities can threaten this cycle of life.

"A predator can frighten adult birds into abandoning their nests," it continues. "A dog, even on a leash, looks like a predator. So does a kite; shorebirds can mistake it for a hawk."

Violations of these rules can result in fines or worse, but after my most recent to the mile-long stretch of Nauset Spit, the rangers or any other law enforcement folk were the least of my concerns. No, I endured what many a beachgoer may never experience.

It was "the Attack of the Piping Plovers."

The piping plover, now considered a "threatened species," is hardly an imposing creature. Measuring a staggering seven inches, Charadrius melodus and its many different cousins roam the beaches of Outer Cape Cod, holding a strong preference for barrier beaches. I've always been amused by plovers, sandpipers and sanderlings, especially with the way that they scoot about on the sand, resembling some sort of wind-up toy running wild.

A large part of the spit is now roped off to accomodate the nesting birds, but the roping allows for one small path to cut across from the beach to Nauset Marsh. The bird protectors have OK'd this path to be used, but apparently someone forgot to tell the plovers. The sign says, "Access to Nauset Marsh," but not if these guys have anything to do with it.

After roaming down the beach, I started back toward the Coast Guard Station and figured that I'd go have a look at the marsh. As I started to walk down the path, two plovers began circling around my head, stopped in mid-air and hovered about 15 feet or so above my head, chattering madly.

These birds were NOT happy. They were telling me to "get the (censored whistling chirp) out of here. NOW."

This continued as long as I stayed on the path. A group of walkers came through from the marsh side, so I moved back to the beach to get out of their way. These people must have been shaking their heads as they left, for the birds were pulling the same stunt with them. No doubt, there was plenty of nesting going on, and no one -- but no one -- was going to be welcome here.

The group moved on, and I went back on to the path. The plovers' hovering ritual continued, then one or two would actually begin to dive-bomb in my direction, only to suddenly turn away at the last second. I had to wonder -- these little critters don't sit at the windows of motel windows and catch a few glimpses of old Alfred Hitchcock movies on cable TV, do they?

People weren't the only ones in danger. Any gulls that chose to pass over this area were also quickly escorted away by a dive-bombing piping plover. This area wasn't safe for man nor beast. Even though they're only seven inches in size, they demand respect.

There's no question that the piping plover needs an undisturbed area for its nesting. As humans, we hog up enough of the earth. But how much are we REALLY being told about these piping plovers, those dive-bombing denizens of the dunes? Maybe there's another reason why those nesting areas are roped off. I wonder ...


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