Serious shell collectors must become more discriminating as the years pass, or they wind up with too many tossers. Too many not-quite-perfect specimens greedily or hastily grabbed become just more clutter transferred from the seashore into our homes and lives.

I once wrote that Piping Plover’s eggs are the new sea glass. But as the years pass and I, too, become more discriminating, I see it’s not a fair comparison. Piping Plover’s eggs are just so much more sublime.

When you think about it, what is shelling except picking through death and detritus? Even the holy grail, sea glass, is nothing more than someone’s poorly disposed-of trash.

But beach-nesting birds’ eggs? They’re life. They’re a promise. They are hope.

And they’re also a much more challenging hobby because, unlike shelling, where you rely on the gentle, random luck of a rolling sea for your rewards, with nest finding, you have a squirrely and active opponent constantly trying to checkmate you.

Tacey had a great sense of style expressed through her shelling. She shell tossed slowly, carefully inspecting each bit to make everything perfect for her and Tufters. No tossers at the Taceters nest!

The eggs are naturally sand colored and randomly speckled, making them hard enough to spot. But Piping Plovers have a bonus move called “shell tossing,” where they do a little shelling of their own.

Shell tossing is pretty hilarious to watch. The plover basically walks around the nest facing away, picks up little bits of shell, and tosses them backward blindly over a shoulder. Imagine digging a hole, then trying to fill it by throwing shovels full of dirt over your shoulder without looking behind you. You’d look like an idiot.

But the plovers probably aren’t trying to fill the hole. While no one can say for sure why a plover does what it does, it seems unlikely they are trying to turn their sand scrape into a bed of shells. If you were playing the game of “sit on these eggs for a month without breaking them,” which would you rather have under them? A bed of sand? Or a bed of sharp little shards of glass?

What shell tossing most likely does is add an extra layer of camouflage, seamlessly blending their nest into the surrounding beach. It’s the paint job on their new homeā€”the finishing touch. The seemingly-ineffective, totally-blind chucking over the shoulder is probably the secret to making the moved shell bits look so natural.

Smalls was a cocky little overachiever. He removed almost every bit of shell around the nest and filled the bowl.

Shell tossing really lets a Piping Plover express its style. While how much or how little shell tossing occurs should be defined by how much camo the nest needs, a Piping Plover’s personality takes over too. Some plovers toss way too much and draw more attention to the nest. Some fill the bowl to the brim, making the nest bowl too shelly and the surrounding beach too bare. Maybe they are anxious. Or bored. Or just showing off.

But this new nest in Barnegat Light got it just right. The pair is a new, unbanded pair at Plover Park. Usually, we’re most stunned by the beauty of nests formed in thick vegetation, but this one looks so cool in the dense shell debris and the expert shell tossing they must have done to make it blend in so well. It’s so perfect. I missed it on three visits despite searching the exact area!

We live in such an amazing world.

Unfortunately, all that effort was a tosser. The next day, the nest was lovingly exclosed with wire fencing, and the shelly debris field turned bare where NJFW had to dig the trench around the nest. (This was the pair who goose stepped all over my video demo yesterday.)

But it’s better protected now. And it’s still a beauty.

Congratulations to BALI PIPL Nest 04A; you’re some seriously discriminating shellers.

I’m now inspired to review my own collection of shells cluttering up my home. I’m sure I can find a few tossers to chuck over my shoulder back onto the beach where I should have left them in the first place.


  1. I love this! I have long been amazed at the various decorating styles of plovers, and their site selection for scrapes. Found a scrape the other day inside an old duck skeleton! I’m rooting for that one to be chosen for their nest!


  2. I agree with all the reasons posted for tossing but I know if I were a plover, mine would def be related to anxiety lol. The poor eggs would be buried in shell debris. “There”, I would think, “they’ll never find it now!”


    1. Mine would be boredom. I love when you catch an adult incubating, and just mindlessly grabbing any shell in neck’s-reach and dragging it into the bowl.


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