Piping Plover nests feel haphazard. There are no painstakingly woven stick structures or carefully selected materials for bedding; they kick some sand around on the beach to make a slight impression and drop their eggs right in it. A footprint is more substantial. A toddler spends more time constructing things on the beach.
But they appear more random and impulsive than they are in reality.
Piping Plovers have strong “site fidelity” and tend to lay their nests in the same places summer after summer. You might think this means they like to return to the same habitat, like Holgate or Barnegat Light, the same way you or I might prefer to visit only one over the other. While that’s true, it’s more than that. It’s more like how you park your beach chair in the exact same spot every day, year after year.
NestStory is terrific because we can overlay the exact location of a PIPL’s scrapes and nests from multiple years. So suddenly, you can see that site fidelity sometimes means “within a foot or two” of the same spot each year. It’s downright spooky!
Unfortunately for Barnegat Light’s celebrity plover Jimin, he expresses this kind of laser-focused site fidelity for the worst possible place: the 22nd Street beach drive on access.
Early this spring, LBI’s celebrity photographer Matt Reitinger was out on the beach hoping to spot the first Piping Plover of the 2023 season. And he was successful, later discovering and reporting the first in the state: Giantsbane of Barnegat Light.
But he also found something more unusual and potentially problematic when he stopped by 22nd Street looking for Jimin.
Matt discovered that someone had gone through significant time and expense to plant a massive and enormously artificial grid of dune grass right over Jimin’s habitat. It was a bizarre and wholly unnatural-looking sight on the beautiful front beaches of Barnegat Light. Who would do such a thing? And why?
Running it up the flagpole to the co-moms of NJFW’s beach-nesting team, Kashi & Emily, we learned they were also unaware of this development and had no explanation. Though they did offer that thanks to Barnegat Light’s impressively healthy dunes, the Borough never had beach replenishment, so they didn’t need to coordinate or get permission from the state to make such modifications.
Asking around the neighborhood instead, it turned out that local folks were also puzzled. Most suggested the only one with the wherewithal for such a project would be the Borough itself. But even if so, why?
It would be an epic fail if the beach were planted to beautify it. Instead, it now looks like the beach has bad hair plugs; the unnaturalness is highlighted even more by the gorgeous, natural surrounding dunes.
And if someone planted to fortify the dune, that too would be an epic fail. The best way to strengthen a healthy dune is to allow a new, forming dune to develop naturally at its base. And what’s the best way to do that? Attract Piping Plovers and have the area fenced off for as long as possible! Most of the beautiful forming hills and dunes in Barnegat Light resulted from fencing the areas off for Piping Plovers. And Jimin’s consistent site fidelity for 22nd Street had started that process, with a large hill already forming in its center. So the destructive action of the planting process was probably a net loss for dune fortification in the area.
Others have suggested a darker and more unlikely conspiracy: the beach was explicitly planted to stop Jimin and other Piping Plovers from nesting there and the area from being fenced off. But again, that would be another epic fail. Even turning the area into a parking lot couldn’t squash Jimin’s love for and site fidelity to 22nd Street. Furthermore, the dense plantings only push the naturally forming dune and shelly debris Jimin needs out further into the beach, creating the need for even more extensive, longer fences, which are more annoying and disruptive to human activity. The humble little nesting area at the base of the dune where Jimin nested was discreet, out of the way, and was the type of area you want fenced to encourage healthy dune fortification.
What’s more, defiling Jimin’s habitat most likely wouldn’t stop him from nesting, but it would surely make it more challenging for him to be successful. And that means more nesting attempts, fencing, and a much longer nesting season than otherwise.
It just didn’t make sense. All the theories posited by folks on the beach didn’t hold water. Any of those explanations would have the same logical result for the project: an enormous waste of time, effort, and money. Every single one, an obvious and predicatble epic fail.
And so there was nothing left to do except let it all remain a mystery and wait to see how Jimin made sense of it.
By the time the nesting season began in earnest, the plover I was most excited to see was little Jimin. Jimin is a true local and one of the first generations hatched in Plover Park. He is a poster boy for the recovery and the Island’s excellent stewardship of its most endangered species. So I headed straight to 22nd Street to find him because that’s where he spends his summers.
I hadn’t walked more than 20 feet onto the beach when Jimin came darting out of the vast planted grid and began trying to draw me away from his turf. That’s how I knew she was there too. I turned and saw Maya resting against a hair plug. Site fidelity, indeed. They were precisely where I’d first seen them each spring for the past few years.
Soon after, their courtship bloomed. But, while Jimin continued to attempt to scrape within feet of his favorite spot, the new plantings were in the way. The planting had degraded the substrate, and Maya wasn’t having any of it. So Jimin grew more desperate each day, scraping further out on the beach, near the water, in the middle of the footpath… anywhere nearby where he could get Maya’s approval. So an exceptionally substantial fence had to go up since the new plantings had forced the pair further onto the beach.
But she continued to look increasingly disinterested.
Then three or four days passed when no one had seen Maya at all. Soon after, Jimin’s scrapes began to vanish, as did his tiny footprints through the grid of grasses.
As a Hail Mary, I spent an evening following Jimin slowly down the beach for over a mile. I watched as he casually ate worms along the water’s edge, then retreated to the upper beach to rest and warm himself. Perhaps it was my imagination, but he looked lonely.
A few hours passed, and there was no sign of Maya. Finally, as the sunset, Jimin retreated to his little area on 22nd Street, snuggled behind a small branch, hung his head low, tragically alone, and dozed off.
We feared the worst when Bri from NJFW confirmed the same over the next few days. I had never considered the possibility. These mysterious dune plantings may not have been enough to temper Jimin’s site fidelity, but they might have been enough to spook Maya. It was a heartbreaking realization. I imagined Jimin hanging on all season, losing potential mate after mate to the hair plugs.
I began writing this story but paused to return to 22nd Street to visit Jimin one more time. I mainly wanted to get a lead picture of this tiny, heartbroken plover for the story, and to see if he genuinely looked as sad and lonely as he appeared to Bri and me.
But he wasn’t anywhere to be found.
I walked back to my car through the hair plug patch, checking each of the old scrapes, barely visible anymore, with deep sadness. I turned towards the setting sun, ready to cry.
And that’s when suddenly a Piping Plover leapt and flew chaotically out of some thick grass not far from me.
It was Maya.
I slowly and carefully searched deep through the thick grass, and that’s when I discovered the biggest, most epic fail of all.
Looks like we all got played by Jimin.
Congratulations to Jimin & Maya. We won’t know until hatch date, but because of the delayed discovery, they could be sitting on the first nest of the season. Jimin might take the title away from his own father: Giantsbane! Special thanks to Matt for discovering and reporting this and keeping such a good eye on Jimin and his habitat.
I am still looking for an explanation for who planted and why they planted this grass on 22nd Street. It could have been a very well-meaning project. But it is an excellent reminder that a beach is a wild place. It’s a habitat. Everything we add, everything we change, and everything we take away can have enormous consequences. This small addition to the beach has made the summer difficult and inconvenient for Jimin, Maya, their babies, and everyone who uses that beach. It’s going to be in interesting summer.
All in for Jimin and Maya!!
Yeah, keep us posted on the plugs.
Yes, could be a long duration event!
Are the plugs close enough to the tide line that a nor’easter, or it’s ilk, might solve the problem?
In a heavy, heavy, yes. But remember this is Jimin’s carefully selected habitat, and one of the main considerations he makes when choosing a spot is how likely it is to flood! So from a PIPL’s perspective, it is pretty safe.
Good private eye work…..let’s save the habitat for these baby fluffs!
Absolutely. Really thankful Matt saw it and knew right away it was problematic