The Plover Park Diaries, June 9th

Nest #06A. First.

June 9th

Last night I found the first post-storm renest. And it actually wasn’t a renest at all. It was a brand new nest from a brand new pair of unbanded youngsters: Pair #06. A sixth pair in an already record-breaking season is undoubtedly huge news. Welcome to Plover Park, Pair #06. I’m glad you found a vacancy and thanks for kicking off the Park’s reset after that catastrophically horrific Memorial Day weekend.

I was excited to report the happy find to Todd, though I already knew what his response would be. Something like, “Wow. Maybe we’ll get pair 07 next!” But I won’t fault Todd for rarely being satisfied and always dreaming bigger. Because we only have Plover Park at all on account of his tendency to do so.

I actually wasn’t too surprised to find this one. I’d been wagering with a few folks about which pair would be the first to renest after the storm (my money is squarely on Giantsbane & Myrtle.) But I also made a side bet that the first nest after the storm would be the brand new nest from the more recent, unbanded pair, now officially #06. They had already been raring to go before the storm. And they aren’t burdened by the trauma of loss like all of the other pairs.

I feel comfortable calling the recent experiences of the Park’s beach-nesting birds traumatic, despite years of intelligent people attempting to dissuade me from saying such things. I’ll concede that we have no real idea what these birds are thinking or feeling or if they even think or feel at all in the way we might conceive of it. But a loss is a loss, and it is clear from their behavior that they don’t want to lose their eggs or chicks. Try taking one from them, and you’ll see this is true. And that being true, it is probably also true that they like even less losing everything, all at once.

I find people who get hung up on the semantic and biological particulars of how we best describe a bird’s experience of the inherent suffering of loss to be sometimes irritating and even cruel, except when it is mainly well-intentioned. You usually don’t sound smart when you accuse people of anthropomorphizing (or worse) when they express empathy or sympathy for animals. Instead, said plainly, you risk sounding like a jerk. I’ve seen enough to know that they don’t like it. And I’ve become suspicious that the unpleasantness of loss lasts a little longer than we might first assume. 

I wonder most about their perception of the time they’ve lost. And the effort. Thirty days of sitting on those eggs non-stop, and now they have to do it all over again. How do they experience that? We know they stand ready to renest, but it’s now twice the effort. Do they dread it? How do they weigh the tradeoffs in twice-the-effort for the same outcome? What is their experience of “getting back on the horse?” How do they consider their exhaustion and their physical limits? I don’t see a way that “twice the effort” goes unnoticed by any creature on this planet.

But I don’t need to worry about all of that with Pair #06. They’ve lost nothing yet. On the contrary, they are getting a fresh start.

This morning I returned to nest #06A to check for a second egg. Unfortunately, with all of the chaos the storm brought to Plover Park, it wasn’t exactly clear when pair #06 laid that egg. Understanding the precise timing of the nest formation is critical information to care for it properly.

Hoping to find two eggs, it was that much more awful when I discovered no egg at all.

Because Coyote ate it last night.

Nest #06A site, trampled by Piping Plover
Nest #06A site, trampled by Coyote

My heart instantly sank, and I immediately felt nauseous. While I was surely upset for pair #06 and the loss of another nest in the Park, what is more deeply troubling to me is the betrayal of my silent bond and admittedly precarious love affair with Coyote. 

It was exactly a year ago when Barnegat Light’s Coyote pair first brought their seven pups into Plover Park. I became intrigued by them the first time the pups stole one of my cameras. I became utterly fascinated after they took the fourth camera. And the first time I ever recovered one of those cameras and watched them running across the beach and rolling in the sand, playing with my camera like it was a tennis ball or a fat stick, I fell absolutely and unashamedly in love.

Coyote has always been part of Plover Park for me. Up until this discovery, Coyote has been a great protector and steward of the Park. Almost every night, I watch Coyote on patrol, carefully marking its perimeter with her pungent urine, keeping all of the other would-be predators at bay. Last season I watched the pups raised at the Finger, right alongside the Piping Plover, who also raised their chicks there, all without a single incident of consequence. And now, a year later, I’ve carefully, yet nervously, watched what’s left of the pack live in harmony alongside the Piping Plovers, passing their nests silently each night, each night itself passing without incident, for months.

Coyote was doing such a good job; she was even going to get her own trading card. 

I am devastated by this development. Of course, I’ve been aware of the possibility that Coyote herself could be a problematic predator, despite her undeniably useful function as a top-level predator of Barneget Light’s more familiar and totally-out-of-control lesser predators like mink, raccoon, fox, and cat. So I have only myself to blame. 

Still, I sense I’ve suddenly lost not only nest #06 but something very personal and very vital. I can’t articulate exactly what yet.

I carefully followed Coyote’s tracks from the night before. I believe this was an accident. The wide arc of Coyote’s travels last night shows it is improbable that she was targeting this nest specifically and instead found nest #06A by pure, dumb luck. 

That gives me some comfort. Just not quite as much as I would have thought.

There is inherent suffering in the experience of loss. The fact that we share the experience is the essence of compassion. The fact that we can be the cause of it for each other is the essence of conflict.

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