Beach bunnies & piping plovers: My time as a wildlife conservationist

By Sarah Stuart-Sikowitz, Essay Editor

It is a sweltering day in June and the birds are chirping. I am working at the Rockaway beaches, located at the southeast tip of Brooklyn where the borough meets the Atlantic. To my right are the barrier island’s plant-speckled dunes that roll gracefully until they hit pavement. To my left is the clear water of the Atlantic lapping against the trash-ridden sand. However, I am not here to pick up trash, I am here for what is before me: the nesting site of the critically threatened piping plover.

The piping plover or Charadrius melodus, a small white bird with a silhouette akin to cotton balls on stilts, is federally-listed as threatened and New York state-listed as endangered. With a drastic loss in habitat due to development and increased beach user-ship in the past three decades, the bird’s ability to nest on Brooklyn’s beaches became nearly impossible.

Suburban life in the Rockaways was developed in the mid-1800s, but due to the challenge of hauling people through swamps into the islands, it wasn’t fully operational until 1869 when the first railroad was built.

Courtesy of the New York Times

 

The original towns and villages were established by poor Irish and Jewish immigrants who were attracted to the cheap and beautiful land. The supermarkets and smoke shops didn’t come until after the first modern railroad was built in 1956, which transported people from Manhattan and upstate New York to the area’s closest beach. This ushered a new era for the Rockaway peninsula.

With easy transportation, the land became known in New York as prime year-round real estate. In rushed the opportunistic developers selling beach side mansions for quadruple what they bought the land for. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers chose these beaches as their new homes, letting schools, rental homes, gas stations, and all-terrain vehicles take over the islands. This was the beginning of the piping plover’s decline.

Their population declined until the Rockaway nesting site was established in 1989 as a protected zone by the National Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Since then, crews like mine have been installing protective fencing around their nesting zones and monitoring their reproductive behavior in order to facilitate the species’ population growth.

During my time with the plovers, I worked underneath Doug Adamo, chief of the natural stewardship division at Gateway National Recreation Area. Adamo has been overseen the plover protection program for over 14 years.

“There was probably a really nice fore dune and secondary dune that was wiped out by development,” explained Adamo. “Now we just have the remnants of that. Luckily, it was 1972 when the park was created and the last of it was preserved from then on.”

Despite their effective function in the broader ecosystem, people rarely see beaches as diverse environments that serve as a home for a plethora of important birds, grasses, and insects that had established themselves long before humans arrived. Fore dunes, the first dunes from the sea, are the areas that plovers and a wide range of animals and vegetation inhabit. The first three rows of dunes are covered in beach grass, cord grass, sand wort, and sea rocket. Their roots lace together loose grains of sand and cement the dunes in place, which are extremely sensitive to human foot trampling. Sand dunes must be stabilized by this vegetation as they provide the first barrier against impacts of storms and floods. This will become increasingly important as ocean levels rise and test our ecological defenses in the next fifty years.

Courtesy of Joe Saraceno

 

We have worked on the beaches for the past two weeks. As many of the plover couples have laid their eggs and have started to incubate, we are checking to see if any have hatched. Though this landscape is a paradise to many, it has lost its glamour as it is our duty to monitor the hot sands for eight hours a day.

Two fellow National Park Service employees trudge through the sand next to me: one 79-year-old man named Tony with a wispy white ponytail poking out from under his canvas hat, and the other a young man squinting against the blinding light. I am covered in my cotton uniform, skin hidden from the overbearing sun.

My crew of biotechnicians work out of Gateway National Recreation Area, New York City’s most expansive federal park. We spend most of our day looking through binoculars, taking notes and getting to know the plovers. There are many behaviors we look out for. Displaying their feathers at a fellow bird? One is courting the other. Are they collecting shells? This is a common behavior among nesting pairs who decorate their nests to camouflage their eggs. A butt that has recently turned the color black? They’re likely mating and the female may be pregnant.

It takes a trained eye to find the brilliantly camouflaged birds, white and grey speckled little things, unremarkable against the sand and shells. After laying four eggs, plovers spend the majority June sitting on their nests, an activity called incubating. Stress and distraction from nearby beach activity can affect their ability to incubate effectively and can lead to higher egg and chick death. It is essential we know if and when there will be eggs so we can set up symbolic fencing—a protective string fence which illustrates the approximate distance the birds need from human beings without becoming stressed. Once hatched, their chicks are even smaller and significantly harder to spot. As we are only a few weeks into the nesting season and it takes roughly 26 days for them to hatch, I have yet to see one since starting the job.

While we scope out the nest of two mating plovers, Tony is off on another rant about a family walking along the water.

“Those beach bunnies better keep walking,” he grumbled, smacking his lips from dehydration. The man spent most of his days here harping on the locals, complaining of their arrogance and general demeanor. “They don’t care about our plovers, they only want to bring their goddamn dogs on the beach and take over like they own the place.”

Tony has established himself as one of the plover’s most dedicated protectors, clocking in over twenty years of work on the job. He has spent one quarter of his life warding off beach goers threatening to harass the species. This is one of the most important parts of his job, as the plovers’ threatened status has been caused by an array of factors, the highest among them beach recreation.

The Management Plan for the threatened piping plover, a document written in 1989 and followed diligently by the staff at Gateway, describes the three most detrimental impacts to the plover’s reproductive success as habitat loss and degradation, disturbance by humans and domestic animals and predation.

“Human activity and habitat decline go hand-in-hand,” Adamo said. “With the disturbances during the beach season, this is what happens: the birds are already establishing their nests when Memorial Day comes along. All of sudden there are tons of people that weren’t there in the beginning of May around the birds. That’s why all these conservation measures were put into place, we’re trying to help that situation.”

To lessen the human disturbances, the government asks beach users to avoid flying kites and drones, not to bring their dogs, and not to enter into marked bird nesting territory. Plenty of beach space is offered to engage in those activities elsewhere. For those who refuse to abide by the law, jail time and a fine of up to $500 is possible under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Many of my coworkers have called the police on vandals or trespassers in their time working for Gateway.

One nest robbed of its eggs may not seem like the end of a population. However, when dozens of people affect the birds’ ability to procreate—whether that be by harassing them, taking eggs, or simply flying a kite—it exponentially erodes the population with each new generation. In the 2016 mating season there were only 24 nests in the Rockaways, according to the Resource Report on Piping Plover Monitoring, and roughly 59 percent of the eggs were successful. This is only a slim rise from the numbers before 2012 when Hurricane Sandy’s waves created more nesting habitat, but not nearly enough to de-list the species. Another nest destroyed would have further eaten away at their success rate and brought the species closer to endangerment.

Many critiques of the federal government’s protection of endangered species go beyond frustration of lack of beach access. Some go so far as to argue that protecting a species is manipulating natural selection. In fact, having a more genetically diverse ecosystem provides more opportunities for evolution to occur. Patricia Rafferty, chief of resource stewardship at Gateway national recreation area, said anyone who brings up natural selection doesn’t understand the big picture.

“If you take people out of the picture, this species would do just fine,” Rafferty said. “The habitat that they need occurs in a place where there is high human demand and use. You can hardly take a bird that weighs a few grams and expect them to out compete humans.”

Having an act that protects these birds helps maintain a healthy ecosystem rich with genetic diversity. No matter how inconvenient beach closure may be, these small regulations can change the entire environment for the better.

“Within the 4.5 miles of Sandy Hook that have been left natural for the beach nesting birds, including the plover, just within that area, we’ve seen one-half of the state’s [plover] productivity,” Adamo says with a proud smile. “That’s really productive. You can imagine if we had even five more miles of beach somewhere what the productivity level might be.”

That’s why we are hard at work in the Rockaways, monitoring the plovers, educating members the public and sometimes detaining them. Without the National Parks, Fish & Wildlife Service and other federal, state, and local organizations that have taken action in regulating the species’ population, Adamo believes the birds could have seen a grim end.

“The plovers just can’t be productive without minimal disturbances,” he said. “If there were no regulations on them, you’re looking at very small pockets of populations whose productivity would go down so much that within 10-15 years, they might be extinct.”

This is what we think about when we see families on the beach. But today, all is well in bird land. Worst case scenarios are rare. No speeches must be made to educate lawbreakers. The family passes by my team without event, though Tony continues to grumble. The family isn’t here to steal eggs, nor are they looking for trouble. The plover female nestles peacefully over her eggs while the male scavenges for food. With no imminent danger in the near future we decide it’s safe to venture on towards the next set of fenced-off areas.

The next plover site is past a crowd gathered at a beach-side resort. We are a stark contrast with the half-naked visitors burning their tanned skin in the hot sun. We dodge children tossing baseballs and drunk fathers with enormous beer bellies. All are grumbling like Tony now who is flushed both with jealousy and frustration at their hedonism. One part of me wants to strip off my sticky cotton AmeriCorps shirt and jump in the water like the rest of them.

Far past the drunken sunbathers and giddy children, we arrive at the final fenced-in nesting site. Within the string fencing there are two plovers zooming one way or another, down to the water to feed and into the grass to cool off. Their newfound energy is palpable and we can’t help but smile. Tony pulls his binoculars to his eyes and watches them calmly, his mood lightened by the birds and our distance from the resort.

I look through my binoculars and find the birds. Their soft, rounded bodies have not ceased to send me into a fit of squeals. The species do less walking than bobbing, hopping here and there erratically and peeping quietly for one reason or another. I scan their land for the movement of other plovers but see little more than discarded bottles, cardboard, and tampon applicators. They do not mind the trash, they have never known a world without it.

Throughout my time working with the plovers, I debated with myself why humans aren’t more sensitive to their effects on the natural environment. Ultimately, the answer seems disturbingly clear: they might not know, or they might not care. People will continue to smash or take eggs, trample through dunes and erode precious root systems, party and leave trash behind them. They can’t be bothered to stop until they recognize the aggregate impact of thousands of people each year who do the same.

In an ecosystem, small actions are like a drop of water in a still lake: they will cause ripples that continue to grow long after the drop has dissipated. From my time with the plovers and my own research of sensitive ecosystems I have learned only the bare minimum of how each of my sandy footprints affects the wider environment. I may never know exactly how much I contribute to the rise of CO2 emissions each time I flick a light switch on. I certainly can’t measure the amount of methane that has been released in order to bring me the red meat I’ve consumed in my lifetime.

However, my awareness of these facts has lead me down an analytical road that has brought on the urge to lessen these impacts and veer my actions in a greener direction. Dozens of times per day we are presented the choice to be more sustainable, and dozens of times per day we make the wrong choice. But these choices became instinctual only when I realized this Earth is not mine but is equally shared by all species and their children.

“Look,” my coworker says, “Do you see?”

I look without the aid of binoculars to center my vision to find which of the dozens of littered bottles he is referring to, then I look through the specs to see it. At first, I only see a red Budweiser bottle, dented lightly, but there is nothing special about it. Pressed by my peer’s urgency I continue to look, and after some time a tiny bobbing head peeks over the Budweiser can’s edge. The sheer feathers on the head are puffier than those of the adults I’d seen, and I suddenly realize what is behind the beer can. We stand there for some time, waiting for the bird to reveal itself. Finally, the anonymous animal I’ve spent weeks working to protect emerges. A baby plover, the smallest creature I have ever seen. In that moment, the choice became easy.

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