Last summer, I signed up to volunteer at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Each year, the endangered piping plover comes back to the shores of the Atlantic to nest and breed. Currently, it’s thought that there are only roughly 8,000 remaining. In. The. World. So it’s significant that nearly 25% of those come back to my home state to nest.
Parker River each year runs a Plover Warden program to help protect their nesting grounds. Largely, we are the hall monitors of the beach, reminding beachgoers (despite the GINORMOUS signs) that the beach is closed. The 6-mile stretch of pristine beach with its protected dunes is perfect nesting grounds, hence the beach is closed from the beginning of April each year through early August (even through greenhead season!), or when the last of the fledglings go. Only 1 of 4 eggs make it from nest to flight. In short, it’s our job to help them get there.
My first encounter on my first day last year included a pair of entitled locals and their dog who were indignant that they were not allowed to walk down the pristine beach.But you can’t even see the nests, local Karen said. Ken piped in and asked when the wardens’ hours were. Hand on my walkie-talkie, I persuaded them to cooperate, and they finally relented. It is Federal land after all. Nor are dogs allowed.
The guy with the drone was nicer, but still confused as to why endangered birds, whose primary predators come from the sky, would feel ruffled by an ominous robotic sky creature humming around and spying on them from the blue.
This year’s encounters have been more tame. In my official volunteer t-shirt and fluorescent hat, I’ve been able to ward off most would-be violators just by being a tad obvious, and most people I’ve encountered are genuinely curious – some even passionate – about the birds. Not so much the obnoxious college kids camped out in pop-up tents just beyond the (again GINORMOUS) signs, feigning ignorance when nabbed by the plover police, “we thought nobody was checking.”
So far, we have about 33 nesting pairs, with 16 or so active nests after some storms and predators took out a swath of nests. This weekend, the refuge noted that some hatchlings have emerged. Over the next weeks we’ll expect the little fuzzits to begin scooting around the beach. This little guy is from one of last year’s broods that, sadly, didn’t make it after a spate of coyote binges.
So if you encounter a sign, a volunteer, or even just a plover… please tread lightly, as nests are camouflaged and the little ones need as much help as possible. No kites, no dogs, no bikes, no feet… just for a few more weeks to give these guys a fighting chance at fledging!
Watch this space. I’m hoping to get some plover-ific pics as the little ones emerge.
Not all my adventures in Covidville have revolved around cultivating sourdough starter or rehabilitating broken body parts. Last summer, shortly before I broke said body part, I bought a new camera and a ridiculously big lens. I figured that since all travel was on hold for the foreseeable future (I had no idea how long the foreseeable future really was…), I’d invest in something to help me see the local landscape and its natural wonders a little more clearly.
But, the lens was backordered. And it arrived about a week after I was released from the confinements of my sling. And, at the time, I could barely lift it with my left arm. I nearly cancelled the order a couple of times in my exasperation. But something told me to stay.
The waiting is the hardest part.
So it turned out that birdspotting became a part of my physical, if not psychological, therapy during these disheartening and altogether gloomy months. The fact that you actually need to leave the house (sorry, sourdough starter) and situate oneself in a place where there is a plethora of nature, and an anti-plethora of people, meant that I would need to spend quite a lot of time outdoors (good), in open, quiet spaces (better), where there were few people (best; on a lot of levels).
So while I know a bit about some birds, it was a new learning experience to be able to literally zoom in and see them more clearly. And so, over these past 9 months or so I’ve really birthed a new passion, or at least a new pandemic obsession.
Once again, Nature as antidote.
In the late summer and into the fall, I began getting used to the lens. It’s big and heavy, and my shoulder was healing and I sometimes didn’t know if it was helping or hurting to be hauling this thing around all the time, as I wasn’t really supposed to be lifting any weights until at least the 3 month mark. And I don’t like using a tripod (there, I said it!). And I’m really trying to shoot mostly manual these days. So a lot of the early photos were crap. And I almost just gave up on a few occasions.
Then I went back and visited an osprey nest I know. Getting that much closer to these majestic beings made me better understand why, for me, photography is like meditation. I hold my breath when I shoot, focused for those microseconds on the only thing that exists in that moment: whatever it is in the viewfinder. Ospreys are keen hunters, powerful rockets when honing in on their prey, yet graceful in their strength. I’m in that moment with them, focusing on the target, learning from them their patience and perception and precision and tenacity.
The photos that came from that outing lifted my mood and made me want to get better. Physically. Mentally. Photographically.
Throughout the fall, there were more ospreys and the autumnal waterbirds… and then, week by week, they began to fly south to winter. Which, of course, I wanted to do as well: fly somewhere as the days grew shorter and the Covidness became darker and seemingly unending, unyielding, unrelenting, un…….
With winter on the fringes, ospreys and egrets are replaced with a parade of literal snow birds arriving on the scene. We get snow geese and snowy owls and snow buntings, plus the wintering birds of prey like bald eagles and short-eared owls and hawks of all sorts. All of which were a thrill to see, and maybe a bit of an obsession in trying to find. And a good way to wile away the cold and dark days.
And as seasons go, so do the migration patterns. With the thawing rivers and marshes, the wintering birds fly elsewhere, and longer days bring with them the sights and sounds of spring: early April the ospreys begin arriving again. Then the reeds are alive with the sounds of warblers. Then the vibrant bluebirds give way to orioles and thrushes and kestrels and waxwings and tanagers. Spring indeed is a cacophony of birdsong, plumage and mating dances.
One of the joys of living near the shore is the return of the shorebirds. I’m seeing an influx of the ducks and egrets and sandpipers that can only mean that brighter, warmer, longer days are upon us.
Which brings me to this week. Although the piping plovers return at the beginning of April, they don’t get to nesting in earnest until sometime in May. There are only roughly 7500 piping plovers in existence, about half on the East Coast of the US. Every chick is sacred, as they say. I’m very respectful of distance and restricted beaches (most of their nesting area is roped off or beaches completely closed to help protect the species), so the long lens helps a great deal!
My pandemic patience and persistence practice, as well as my affinity to avoid crowds have paid off: I’ve found some baby plovers and their relatives.
Piping plover hatchlings can eat on their own on the very first day but won’t fly for about a month. In the process, they peep and skitter across the sand like little worm-eating machines, learning about life in the big bright world as they go. And, boy are they cute!
And there are the killdeer: I’ve created something of a narrative around these birds even though they are slightly less adorable. I’ve been looking for killdeer chicks the past couple of weeks in a place I know there’s a nesting pair. A few days ago one of them was acting really strange so I had an idea there may be chicks around. I went back just before dusk on Friday and finally found them… It was like a small avian circus really. Killdeer are cousins of the plovers and so their chicks are also precocious – the technical term is precocial, meaning they can feed themselves and move around right after hatching, but precocious is more like it. Cheeky, even.
Killdeer #1 was tending the flock (4 or 5 that I could see), and as the sun got lower s/he started to gather them underneath her to settle in. But as soon as they all seemed to tuck in, one would pop out and start exploring again…then another…and another. And then s/he had to go herding. At one point, s/he got so exasperated that s/he called her mate to take over. S/he flew off and complained to the willet sitting on a dirt mound nearby while the mate took over fledgling-wrangling duties.
The look on the poor birb’s face was something like a bedraggled mother trying to wrangle scurrying toddlers: “ffs, if you don’t get in here right now Wally, that giant pterodactyl is going to come down and grab you and you’ll never eat any of those yummy marsh grubs again!“
It’s been a rocky time in Covidland. I’m grateful daily for relative health and a job I love and and a modicum of sanity and the luxury of being fully-vaccinated…but I’m not taking any of it for granted because it all still feels a little precarious right now.
So my bird tales end here for the day, but the lessons I’ve learnt from birdstalking with a larger lens are clear:
Do the thing if you can, especially if you get to learn something new in the process
Find nature, experience open spaces, smell the leaves, listen to the birdsong
Stay focused on what’s in front of you; there’s a lot of swirling chaos out there that will exist whether or not you pay attention
After you’ve gone through a bad day (or a string of them), congratulate yourself for the accomplishment…nobody else may have even noticed, as their days may be equally as trying as yours
Bring snacks. It’s easier to stay a little longer doing a thing you didn’t know you’d enjoy if you’re not starving!
Here’s to brighter skies, warmer days and a return to adventuring in earnest.