Do You Believe In Piping Plovers?

“Duz you believe in me?” This is the image for the month of June in the Little Egg Foundation 2021 Coastal Wildlife Calendar. Get yours before they are gone!

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.

Back cover of the 2021 Coastal Wildlife Calendar, also Piping Plover. Believe!

6 Comments

  1. I used to enjoy surf fishing. I first learned about piping plovers when they were discovered nesting on the point at Cape Henlopen in Delaware, resulting in the closing of my favorite fishing spot. I knew nothing about them and had never seen one, but I started to think of them as “those d*** piping plovers!”
    That was many years ago. The point is still closed during nesting season, the piping plovers still adorning the dunes with tiny eggs. They still face many natural dangers, but surf fishers are not among them. I no longer fish, but have since become a birder, and my love for and awe at the wonders of all feathered creatures is unbounded.
    From this different perspective I now treasure their presence at Cape Henlopen and I always look forward to seeing your pictures and reading your thoughts about “those d*** piping plovers”. Thanks for all that you do!

    Like

    1. Thanks for this comment. It is really fantastic and thought provoking and brings up a good point:

      One thing about this reading that made me uncomfortable was that part of it reads as if I am targeting anglers as being bad people. I definitely do not feel that way. I love fishing and anglers, and most are good allies and advocates for coastal wildlife. Some of the best. My story just happens to be true as I told it: I was fed, and long believed, those two two specific lies about piping plover by anglers I knew growing up. That’s not to disparage anglers as a group; that is just what happened to me.

      I still hear this stuff; and sadly, sometimes from people who actually love wildlife. That’s why I call it mythology. There is a mythology of the beach and it can cloud our understanding of the truth and the facts. I know it did mine. We accept things as truth which aren’t truth; usually because someone with a selfish interest has tricked us. This happens in politics too, as we know, all the time!

      The real issue, and simple fact, is that driving trucks on the beach is deadly for the animals who live there. I too drive on the beach. But I now accept that I can’t during the nesting season because I know it is harmful. I know the anglers that taught me these things when I was young were victims of propaganda: propaganda from people who put their desire to drive on the beach over native wildlife. I don’t think that is a defensible position now that I am older and wiser. I believe native animals win over driving on the beach, and I don’t believe the opposite position is defensible or reasonable on any level.

      I love your comment as we share the same point of view. We love the fishing, and we love the birds; we love it all! And we know that most anglers are almost no threat to beach nesters, especially when compared to their natural threats.

      The only issue is driving. If we can all accept that there is a time of year we can’t drive on the beach we would be much better off.

      I was one of those people who grew up saying “those $%$^ piping plovers!” too. I now see that the people who taught me that were being selfish and missing the bigger picture, or worse, they were tricked by others that were being selfish and missing the bigger picture.

      Thanks for your comment, and for giving me the opportunity to clarify. As I mentioned, I felt uncomfortable that I could be misconstrued as saying that angling as an activity, or anglers as a group, were a problem. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      And this post is all about getting past the myths and seeing what is really in front of us.

      Like

  2. I would hope the majority of beach goers can accept some beach closures when they’re educated on the back story of Piping Plovers and other shorebirds. Writings like this one sure helps. It would be great if your Readings articles could be a regular column in the local Sandpaper.

    Yesterday I received my 2021 Coastal Wildlife Calendar. It’s photos are exquisite and the quality excellent. Can’t wait to hang it up!
    Best of it – all proceeds go toward Little Egg Foundation and the good work for coastal birds!

    Like

    1. Thank you! Haha, your comments about the calendar are so good, they sound like I wrote them as an advertisement! Hahaha. Thank you thank you thank you. I’m so pleased you like it.

      And I do think the tables are turning and younger generations are far more tolerant of, even supportive of, beach closures. When I grew up there was too much open space on the Island. Now there is not enough. In my lifetime I’ve watched us move from a need to develop to a need to preserve. The kids are growing up on a completely different Island so their values are different. I’m hopeful.

      Like

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