Of all of the fascinating natural wonders of the Jersey Shore, can you guess which one made the biggest impression on the first Dutch explorers who landed here in the seventeenth century? It wasn’t the fine sands of our gorgeous beaches and it wasn’t the rich variety of marine life teeming in our bays.
It was the eggs. The little bird eggs to be precise. Those early explorers found a seaside paradise so uniquely riddled with birds’ nests along the beaches and in the marsh that they were astonished. So abundant were these nests that when they took those first steps off their massive ships, their heavy, sea-soaked boots probably squashed dozens of them.
And so they named this place “Eiren Haven,” or “Egg Harbor”.
Four hundred years later, that name remains but the awareness that tiny birds’ eggs are the original treasure and natural heritage of the shore is all but erased, vanished along with those same birds; most especially the crown-jewel species of the original denizens of our beaches who the Dutch encountered in such vast multitudes on that first visit: the Piping Plovers.
When I was younger I would walk along Barnegat Inlet with my parents (or “Barendegat, Inlet of the Breakers” as those same Dutch explorers had named it.) I remember being puzzled as to why small sections of beach were roped off to “protect birds.” It didn’t make any sense to me. Birds could fly. Why couldn’t they just fly away? And besides, birds live in trees and bushes, I thought. The trees were far off in the distance. Why not fence the trees and bushes and let me play on the beach? I certainly didn’t see any birds. My parents didn’t know, or see anything, either.
So I asked the old timers fishing along the inlet and they told me a secret. They told me those fences were put up allegedly to protect the beach nesting Piping Plover, but that the Piping Plover were in fact already long extinct. The scientists just kept putting up those fences so they could keep us away and have the beach all to themselves, they said.
And I’d later ask the old timers on the other end of the island at Holgate too, who would also tell me of a similar, but inverted, conspiracy. They whispered to me that they’d heard there were actually hundreds of thousands of Piping Plovers along the coast. But the scientists still pretended they were in danger, and so kept putting up those fences… just so they could keep us away and have the beach all to themselves.
Over the years I’ve met people on the beach who even claim they hate the Piping Plovers: the tiny, beach-closing, fun-destroying, possibly non-existent bird; apparently public enemy number one to beach buggies and dog walkers everywhere. Hate is a strong word for such a tiny bird, yet I never doubted their feelings; especially those angry enough to create and wear cleverly inflammatory t-shirts proclaiming that Piping Plover “tastes like chicken.”
Yet curiously, despite all the conspiracy and controversy, I had never met a single person who had actually ever seen a Piping Plover on the beaches of LBI, and only a rare few who could even describe for me in just modest detail what one looked like; myself included.
It would appear that in just a few hundred years, our Piping Plover and their little eggs went from being something so abundantly and uniquely impressive that the Dutch named the whole region for them, to being something so hard to find that people don’t even believe they exist anymore. The Piping Plover had somehow become even less than a ghost or an apparition; more like some mythological delusion from distant centuries past.
And that’s when I decided to set out and try to find a Piping Plover on Long Beach Island to see for myself.
It took me decades to come to understand that the shore has its own mythologies. Some of this mythology is created to fill voids of honest ignorance; like all the things my parents couldn’t teach me about birds or the island’s ecology simply because they didn’t know, so I created my own myths to answer my own questions and support my simplistic assumptions. And some is just sloppy nescience, as with all the people who will happily point at any of the dozens of abundant shorebird species who visit our island and lazily call them “Piping Plovers.” And some is born of more intentionally devious and self serving motivations, like the conspiracies the old-timers fed me as a boy, probably hopeful to grow their ranks with a fresh recruit in a war against beach closures. Much of this mythology we just accept, and perpetuate, simply because we are busy and don’t really care all that much. I know I didn’t. Until one day, I suddenly did.
While it wasn’t easy to find a creature nobody I knew had ever seen before and many had told me didn’t even exist, I would eventually prevail and the experience would change my life forever, astonishing me as deeply as those early Dutch explorers were when they first sailed into a harbor filled with little eggs.
In the years since, I have immersed myself the real lives of our native Piping Plovers, dispelling the careless myths about them I had inherited and perpetuated, and rediscovering our island’s enchanting natural heritage. Through their tiny lives I’ve glimpsed that unspoiled, egg filled paradise those early Dutch explorers saw. They’ve shown me an island even more spectacular and captivating than the one I already love as much as something can be loved, and I’ve begun to imagine a more vibrant, secure, and beautiful future for our coast. I’ve witnessed first hand through their amazing adaptations just how precisely the Piping Plover were made for this island and this island made for them; a distinction we as a species could never claim for ourselves, no matter how much we might love this place; and a distinction which doesn’t lessen our dominion here, but leads us to be wiser stewards and brings us deeper joy and understanding of this island we cherish.
I can tell you for certain that the Piping Plover are not only very real, but they are one of the most adorable, most whimsical, most astonishing things you can experience down the shore. We buried these treasures of our Island, and it is time to dig them back up and restore our shore to its egg-filled glory. We’ll all be better for it. I encourage anyone who really loves LBI to rediscover the Island’s original locals, the Piping Plover.
But first, you have to see them. And before you can see them, you have to believe.