The last note left in NestStory read simlply,
Jimin and Maya are looking great. Nest is Jimminent.
While it was, in fact, the daddest of dad jokes, the corniness of it could not diminish the seriously exciting and celebratory energy of the good news. Little Jimin, the tiny, one year piping plover born less than a year ago in Barnegat Light had managed to fly halfway across the globe last fall, find his way back home this spring, secure a territory on busy beach, and to find a mate willing, despite his inexperience, to give family life a shot with him. It is the kind of victory you hope for in secret but never expose to the harsh light of a late spring day where you will clearly see how precarious such dreams are and what a setup for disappointment you’ve created by energizing them in the first place. Superstitious or not, you most certainly never say such a thing out loud.
Yet this was undeniably beginning to look like a done deal. It really did appear that, at any moment, a gorgeously speckled and perfectly camouflaged egg would appear miraculously in one, tiny, square inch of the miles of sands on the front beaches of Barnegat Light. This appeared, as NestStory told it, to be Jimminent. A precious egg to be laid and waiting, somewhere urgently, to be discovered, protected, and nurtured.
But time kept marching forward and the sun continued to rise and set, and that egg never appeared. And soon hope began to fade just like the tiny scrapes Jimin had carefully dug in the sand for Maya to lay that egg in.
Jimin and Maya actually had a huge collection of different, tiny scrapes, running in a line alongside an aging tire track in the sand, tediously maintained each day by Jimin, with Maya assisting with the two or three which were clearly her favorites. This garden of tiny scrapes had grown so impressively prolific that New Jersey’s endangered species program had built a fence around it to protect them from careless footsteps and heavy-duty truck tires. But as the hours turned into days, and the scrapes slowly became blown over and filled in, the area regressed to just another stretch of desolate beach; a stretch made even more desolate and lonely somehow by the fence which now seemed to protect nothing but a fading memory of false hopes and evaporated dreams.
That the ephemeral scrapes in the sand and hopes for an egg vanished so completely shouldn’t have been surprising. This was a pair of inexperienced young birds. The experience of attempting the nest at all was a valuable part of their education, fine tuning the instincts which might lead to a successful nest from the pair next season. What was surprising, and concerning, was that Jimin and Maya had vanished too.
This is the peak of the piping plover nesting season; people are scouring every conceivable habitat along the coast looking for these birds right now. Someone had to be seeing them, somewhere.
There are many explanations for why Jimin and Maya might have abandoned their first nesting attempt. Perhaps a murder of crows, a curious puppy, or a wandering toddler had stumbled upon their garden of scrapes and terrorized them into abandonment. Maybe their hormones just hadn’t kicked in enough at such a young age to see the precarious adventure of nesting all of the way through. Perhaps they were just playing house. Or maybe Maya, in the end, just wasn’t… into it.
Yet regardless of the cause, you would expect at least to see Jimin or Maya hanging around their hard won and well tended territory, accepting their defeat, or perhaps stewing in the disappointment, and fattening themselves up for their next big journey.
But there was only the silent emptiness of nothing left, protected by an increasingly pointless symbolic fence.
Finding a tiny sand colored bird whose primary survival skill is camouflage on a massive stretch of beach is challenging enough, even when you have some certainty of their presence in a certain area. But when all of those areas are exhausted of searching, and all of the clues followed, all of the reasonable possibilities explored, what is left? Perhaps instinct, maybe luck, possibly determination. And as your goal becomes more elusive, and the probability of success begins to plummet, perhaps it is just a belief in sweet serendipity that keeps you going; the belief that by pushing forward and trying to find little Jimin, however long a shot that might be, you might find something else delightful, perhaps completely unrelated, even if it is just the next breadcrumb on a much, much longer journey which will ultimately have nothing to do with Jimin and Maya’s tiny egg.
There is hope in that; a hope which can never be defeated because you can just keep kicking the goalpost towards the horizon and marching on.
It’s a great thought to keep you walking anyway; to keep you walking in the damp cold, ignoring all of the other pressing matters clawing at you for attention; walking far past where Jimin would ever be reasonably expected to be, and then, when you’ve reached that point, going just a little bit further than even that, allowing the hopelessness of the pursuit to swallow you in its cold, dark void without deterring you because your goal is now just a formlessly vague sense of fate and unimagined possibility.
And then, in this case anyway, amazingly and unbelievably, that’s exactly when and where you will find Jimin and Maya; deep in the heart of Loveladies, over a mile and a half away from their territory.
It was as surprising a place as it was a worrisome place to find the young pair, right in the middle of their nesting attempt. So far from their territory, it certainly suggested they were abandoning ship.
The habitat there was uselessly terrible: a raked beach with a heavily escarped dune, trampled by footprints and carefree dogs; there wasn’t a single place on that beach where even the most inexperienced plover would see a reasonable spot to drop an egg; only the thoroughly traumatized or the hopelessly desperate would lay in such a saddening, unnatural place. And while the beach was searched anyway, there was no evidence of any scrapes or other signs of any nesting activity at all. Only Jimin and Maya, foraging for worms along the tideline through the chaos and retreating into the thick piles of wrack and washed up clamshells, being periodically picked through by sea glass hunters, to hide and rest, seemingly preparing to end their summer before it even began and head south.
Yet time kept ticking forward, and the sun continued to rise and set, and Jimin and Maya persisted in the heart of Loveladies. It was beginning to feel like much too long of a goodbye. There was no longer a desire for any specific outcome; just a desire for this to end and finally be over with.
With each passing sunset though, Maya was looking increasingly pregnant. And so those long, dull, uneventful hours of watching them, just waiting for the tiniest of clues about what they were up to, suddenly started to feel paradoxically frantic and urgent; frustrating in the extreme. The easy, relaxed state of a continuously rolling adventure, propelled forward by sudden moments of sweet serendipity which I had motivated myself with, had vanished completely; such a state revealing itself to be just as precariously impermanent as Jimin and Maya’s shallow scrapes in the sand.
Because there is a very real urgency to finding a freshly laid piping plover’s egg on an open beach. Without protection, they don’t stand a chance. In an instant it became clear that I needed to find what I was actually seeking, not unexpectedly finding what I wasn’t.
And so with Jimin and Maya safely and casually foraging along the shore in Loveladies, I decided to let them out of my sight for just a moment and to investigate a small patch of shells just a quarter mile in the distance. A terrible place for a nest; but the best of what was around. Not surprisingly, the area was as barren and hopeless as all of the rest so I returned to Jimin and Maya, resolved not to let them out of my sight until it was certain they did not have a secret, endangered nest somewhere in Loveladies.
And once again, they had vanished.
As I remember it, I dropped to my knees in the middle of that cold, damp beach and shrieked an actual, frustrated curse towards the sky. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have let them out of my sight? Dejected and absolutely defeated, I hiked exhaustedly back towards the access where my car was parked and focused on all the small comforts I could console myself with: warmth, hydration, food, a soft chair… I was truly, utterly spent.
And then, just as I was turning to leave the beach for good, a tiny, unbanded piping plover ran up over the berm, let out a plaintive peep, and ran towards the north. It was getting dark, but she did appear possibly pregnant. It was getting very cold, so perhaps she was just fluffed up to warm herself. There was no sign of Jimin, clearly identifiable by his small, colored bands. But still, this could be Maya. And so I mustered the will for one last press and followed her.
Her pace was unusually brisk.
We were probably equally surprised when, after about a half mile, an unbanded, male piping plover spotted Maya and ran down from the dune to join the pursuit. She didn’t like this at all, and quickened her pace. As did he. And as did I.
Trying my best not to lose this tiny, sand color bird as she ran down the beach though a sea of sand, suddenly, out of nowhere, a happy-go-lucky, terrier-mix came bounding over the dune and immediately began chaotically chasing the two plovers, who scattered in abject terror. So despite a strict, personal rule to never attempt to tell strangers what they can and can’t do on the beach, some line was crossed, and in my panicked frustration I called to the dog’s owner:
“Please leash the dog and remove it from the beach. There are no dogs allowed on the beach, and no dogs allowed off-lead in the borough.”
Part of the problem with interacting with people in this way is that what should be a simple, urgent admonition turns into an unusually lengthy conversation and an increasingly hostile argument, which defeats the purpose of protecting the birds by, in effect, keeping the dog around longer. In this case, as in most like it, it went like this:
“I’m allowed to have my dog on the beach, I live here.”
“Sorry Ma’am, but no you are not. It is a law which applies to all of us equally.”
“I’ve been living here for 35 years.”
“Then you should know better than anyone the borough’s dog ordinances. Especially since you have to walk by the sign on the access to the beach each day which clearly states no dogs after April 15th. Endangered birds are on this beach and need your compliance.”
“My dog doesn’t care about birds.”
“Ma’am, I just watched your dog chase an endangered piping plover who is possibly pregnant, which is why I am asking to obey our local laws.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. I didn’t see any bird. My dog loves animals.”
By the time the woman gave up, leashed her dog, and left, the plovers were gone. Again, I dropped to my knees and cursed at the sky. How could I have been so foolish? And again????
But the kerfuffle was impossible to miss. A piercing series of whistles and peeps exploded from just ahead to the northwest, and two tiny plovers rolled violently down the beach. I crawled up over the hill and aimed my camera at the chaos. And I could see enough of a flash of blue and green on one tiny orange leg to know it was Jimin, most likely letting the pursuing interloper know that Maya is not to be stalked or followed.
And that’s when I heard it; a tiny peep unlike I had ever heard before. It sounded so close, it could be coming from my own body. Soft, plaintive, it was almost like a hauntingly melodic sigh. Lying prone in the sand, scared to move, I craned my neck to see over my shoulder… and there she was.
Maya was sitting just off to the side, squatted and determined looking in a shallow impression on the open beach. As she began to spin and twirl slowly in the tiny bowl, I saw her tail raise and her body tense, and I knew what was happening. Modesty begged me to turn away and give her privacy; but fear of disturbing her during this incredibly delicate time froze me in place.
Before I could decide what to do, the thing was done. Jimin knew of the miracle which had just taken place, abandoned his battle, and ran to the nest. He nudged her from the shallow bowl, spread his tail feathers wide, began to sing, and presented back to her, their first home.
Congratulations Jimin and Maya!
Editor’s Note: For those of you with a sharp eye, you might notice that there are actually two eggs in the nest bowl. Maya was laying her second egg in a secret nest which had gone undetected, right in the middle of the beach. This was Mothers’ Day evening and it is a miracle that first egg had survived the weekend. Thankfully, with the help of Christina Davis and Emily Heiser I was able to use a clam shell to cut down an old fence and put a makeshift fence around the nest. It was an embarrassingly lame effort, but did the trick. Before sundown, the fence (and my presence) deterred no less than five dogs from destroying it. Jess from NJFW arrived first thing in the morning to build a proper fence to protect these two and their new nest. THANK YOU.
The two big lessons here: first, you should never be as close to a piping plover’s nest as I was when I took these photos. The 2,200 words above will hopefully explain how and why I found myself in this extraordinarily intimate situation. Second, dogs walked on the beach during the nesting season really are a problem for our local animals. If you, like I once did, believe these laws don’t apply to you, please rethink that. The beach is shared resource and our dog ordinances are actually a matter of life and death. I wouldn’t have believed it myself, but now I have to see it every day and it is painfully horrific; not just the cruelty to the animals, but our selfishness, however born of ignorance, on full display. It’s not a good look for us. Hopefully you’ll trust me, and help by encouraging everyone to obey our simple, straightforward, dog laws and help our endangered local animals.