What do YOU Taste Like?

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

Would you feel strange if there were bumper stickers around saying that you tasted like chicken? Well, such is the case for this week’s species, a charming little shorebird caught in the middle of controversy. The Piping Plover is unfortunate enough to be on the Massachusetts Threatened Species list, one step below ‘Endangered’. Our State is enlightened enough to start species management based on a species being likely to become endangered. It’s like preventive medicine stopping a disease before it can start.

This is another bird you won’t see unless you go to the beach, and then only if you are quite observant. Plovers are different from sandpipers in that they have shorter heavier bills and much more deliberate movements. Pipings are ‘dry sand’ plovers. That is, they are camouflaged very well against the white sand of the beach. The similar Semipalmated Plover is dark brown and likes to hang out on mudflats, where their brown back hides them – light sand and dry sand.

Unfortunately, it is their good beach camouflage that is often their undoing. If the adults are hard to see, the chicks are well nigh impossible, and then there’s the eggs. Piping Plovers are not large. They are about the size of Sanderlings, the familiar little sandpipers that race down into the wash of the waves and then scamper back just in the nick of time before a wave can catch them.

It’s easy to miss their nest because it’s only a ‘scrape’ in the dry beach sand. Occasionally the surrounding area is decorated with pebbles. But that’s really what the eggs look like. Typically there are four eggs, but incubation doesn’t start until all four are laid. That way the entire clutch hatches on the same day. This helps because plovers are very precocious. The chicks can run quite well just a few hours after hatching. So, one of the major parental tasks is herding them around to keep track of them.

A major hazard for the chicks is vehicle ruts. Imagine yourself running along this giant trench in the sand. You try to go left or right but the slope is steep and the sand is slippery. You are a prisoner in your rut. Now a huge black tire comes rolling along like the giant ball in the Indiana Jones movie. There is no place to go and you can’t outrun it. If you think this is a scary situation, you can understand why we try to keep vehicles away from plover nesting areas.

I remember my step-dad, Art Orleans, would always try to drive back and forth along the beach using the same track, and cuss out the irresponsible people who would drive hither and yon, making the beach a mass of ruts. Those were simpler times with fewer beach drivers, and perhaps people were more in touch with the natural world around them.

A hundred years ago, these gentle little birds were driven to the brink of extinction by hunting. The authorities realized just in time that they were at risk and shut the shooting down. The species was just recovering in the sixties and seventies when a new plight arrived – more and more pressure on our beaches as America’s affluence brought more people to the shore every year. I already mentioned the trouble driving causes, but dogs are another one. Man’s best friend needs to be on a leash anywhere near nesting beach birds. A dog running amuck amongst eggs and chicks can wipe out a season’s reproduction efforts very quickly.

So, Nantucket is a key place for these little plovers to make their home. They arrive early in the spring – late March, from their winter homes in Florida. If you are on the beach during these raw spring days, hearing their cheery ‘peep-lo’ piping calls can give your spirits a lift.

Undisturbed, Piping Plovers typically have their chicks out of the nest by late May and the nesting cycle can be finished at the end of June. Unfortunately, people, dogs, gulls, or violent weather often disrupt things and the bird’s desire to nest causes them to start all over again. That’s when fishermen, beach-goers, and dog walkers are out in great numbers and they come head to head with the folks our fair village has hired to try and insure this threatened species doesn’t sink to endangered status or worse.

So, time passes and hopefully, another crop of Charadrius melodus will be ready in July to start their journey south. We still see them into September, but these are birds that spent the summer farther north. If you are on the beach this summer, please respect the signs that mark Piping Plover nesting areas. Use your binoculars to sweep these beaches and maybe you will be lucky enough to see our dry-sand plover. Try not to think about chicken.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

The Maria Mitchell Association sponsors bird walks every Saturday, leaving at 8 a.m. from the Hinchman House on at the corner of Milk and Vestal St. There is a fee. Call 228-9198 for more information.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.