The Plight Of The Plover At Cape Cod National Seashore

Student Conservation Association interns worked on Cape Cod National Seashore this summer to educate beach-goers on piping plovers, a threatened shorebird. SCA photo.

Editor's note: In our occasional series of stories examining what interns with the Student Conservation Association are up to, we caught up with Theresa Conn, who spent time at Cape Cod National Seashore working to protect piping plovers, their nests, eggs, and fledglings. Here's a look at her experience.

It was early morning on Cape Cod National Seashore. I was walking cautiously along the beach with three shorebird biologists trained in avian behaviors. We were looking for signs of piping plovers, which are federally threatened shorebirds that nest all over Cape Cod.

It was my ninth day at work as a Shorebird Conservation Intern, and already I felt like I knew what I was doing. However, it was early, and I felt my mind drifting.

“Theresa, freeze!” yelled Dennis, my supervisor. Like a child playing a game, I stiffened immediately without even a thought. My right foot was raised in the air, only inches above the ground.

“Do you see it? You’re pretty close to a scrape,” Dennis said, both chastising and understanding.

I looked around but saw nothing. Finally, I spied the small, sand-colored piping plover egg lying in a hidden nest in the ground, about five feet away. At that point, I realized how easy it would be for someone to step on a nearly invisible nest by accident. After all, piping plovers, shorebirds that are fighting extinction, have a hard enough time staying alive without me crushing their eggs.

Piping Plover Boot Camp

My first month on the Cape was essentially "piping plover boot camp." I shadowed shorebird techs as they traveled the beach looking for birds, nests, and eggs. I found scrapes (nests) on my own, watched adorable chicks stumble around the beach, and sledge-hammered six-foot fencing posts into the sand.

The underlying reason for the plover’s decline on the East Coast has been the growing number of people visiting the coastline.

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A piping plover. USFWS photo.

On Cape Cod, habitat loss has also been a primary problem, with increasing shoreline development and tourism. The presence of people near plover nesting areas may cause the birds to abandon their nests, exposing their eggs to the hot sun and predators.

Many predator populations have increased by taking advantage of human-provided foods. The more people that go to the beach, the more trash there is; the more trash there is, the more crows and coyotes there are. This has resulted in unnaturally high predation pressure to nests, chicks, and adults.

Beginning in May, field technicians all over the East Coast go out to the beach daily looking for tracks, birds, and scrapes (nests). Once a scrape is found, the shorebird team erects fencing to warn the public that they are near a nesting area. To protect the plovers from predation, exclosures are put up around nests. Exclosures are essentially flexible cages that allow plovers to come and go from their nests as they please but keep out predators.

Educating The Public

One of their biggest problems has been public outrage about conservation practices. From early March to mid-August, areas of the beach may be closed off for recreation to accommodate shorebird nesting. This can be very frustrating for some beachgoers. Some adults will disregard the fencing and continue walking, putting eggs and plover chicks in danger. In extreme circumstances, such as with repeat offenders, we get help from the park rangers.

Fortunately, it rarely gets to that point. Kids, on the other hand, are fun and receptive. I’ll never forget the look of awe in a child’s eyes when they hold an abandoned plover egg. In an age of computers and video games, young people rarely get the chance to step outside and really experience the world around them.

National parks are vital for this reason; each park is a small oasis of nature where kids can unplug. Whether it’s searching for minuscule piping plover eggs at Cape Cod National Seashore or scaling Half Dome at Yosemite, the National Park System offers invaluable experiences for young people.

One of the most common questions asked is, “What do the piping plovers do for me?” In abstract, it would appear that the answer is nothing. The disappearance of the little birds on Cape Cod beaches would go unnoticed by the average beachgoer. However, in reality, piping plovers are canaries in the coal mine. The gradual disappearance of the piping plover population is an indication that our human presence on Cape Cod National Seashore has had a negative impact on the environment.

At what point do we intervene and right our wrongs? If we let the plovers go extinct, what species is next?

My time with SCA on Cape Cod has redirected and shaped my future career goals. I grew up with a desire to be a teacher, but I didn’t want to live my entire life in a classroom. I’ve now learned that teachers come in all different forms, and that nature is one of our best classrooms.

Traveler footnote: A version of this article was originally published by Inquiry, the online undergraduate research journal of the University of New Hampshire.


Meanwhile, wait for the angry comments from folks who want to drive up and down the beach in their vehicles.

Also, NPS Digest this morning reports that sea turtle hatchlings at Cape Hatteras have increased tremendously this year following a court order that prevents driving on the beach during their nesting season.

Fabulous article, thank you for posting this!

It seems that habitat has taken a nose dive this year while funding has taken massive cuts.... What is going on here?

Kurt, second the "moonpie' post, simply a great article by Theresa Conn. Lays the issue out extremely well. For those who have not watched the Ken Burns series. "Our National Parks", well they will be in for a treat. It is not a travelog, it is basically a history of the conservation movement here in the United States and addresses many of the comments on the "Taveler" website. Thank you Theresa Conn for the article and your efforts at Cape Cod.

Where do you get this false information? The predators are the largest threat to the birds and people keep the predators away. (predators which by the way have almost all but vanished so mysteriously)

The nesting areas are roped off and unless you are with a 'conservationist' there is no way that you will encounter the situation as described here because you cannot get close enough to the area to accidentally step on anything.

The biggest reason for fail of these birds to thrive right now is mother nature. Late storms with rising waters and other animals that are hungry are the leading cause for the limited numbers of these birds.

Check to see how many people are actually to blame for these birds being destroyed, then repost your article.

I want to see these birds thrive as much as the next person, and there is a way to do it successfully. In Canada the birds are taken into captivity for a period and they thrive and increase in number. Why can't that be done here? It would be a much better way to spend money rather than pay conservationist to babysit them only to see the eggs be washed away when high tides from storms come around.

"Meanwhile, wait for the angry comments from folks who want to drive up and down the beach in their vehicles."

Thank you Mr Dalton for adding such an ignorant and useless comment, but I guess it's just eaiser to point fingers.

It's ironic that so many of us who use this ORV corridor belong to groups such as the MBBA, which PROMOTES the conservation and responsible use of these beaches. Specific to Massachusetts beaches, how many other groups or conservation interns head out onto the beaches each Spring to pick up tons of garbage that has washed up over the Winter? Do the State Biologists take trash bags with them and pick up garbage while they make their rounds? I honestly don't know. But I certainly know that it would not only be arrogant, but also ignorant for me to say that they don't; just because I have personally never witnessed it in the last 10 years. Not only do we pack out what we take in, but many of us also pick up trash from others that has either washed ashore or blown away from the "walk on" beach at Race Point! Please don't get me wrong, this isn't just about picking up trash beach.

This is about arriving at a MUTUAL RESPECT for the ways in which ALL OF US responsibly use and appreciate one of our most spectacular natural resources. It's also about ensuring that we address ALL of the potential items that may have an impact on Plover populations, instead of constantly pointing the finger at those of us who drive on the beach!

It's curious that research on Plover mortality rates directly attributed to the previously accepted practice of placing aluminum bands on birds legs, was never pursued. But it's good to know that this practice has been stopped since over 50 individuals were observed with severe leg injuries attributed to bands between '85 - '89. Biologist's & Conservationist's are up in arm's if a single Plover chick is disturbed in an ORV Corridor, yet apparently it's OK for them to maim countless individuals over a four year span... ( Page 158)

How about disclosing other possible threats to the population? The same report cited above identifies potential mortality concerns over the construction of proposed Wind Turbines. But I guess this is our fault too in that we all drive gas guzzling 4WD vehicles...

Give me a break Mr. Dalton. It's about time that EVERYONE realizes that all of us who responsibly use and appreciate the ORV Corridors are taken out of the spotlight as being the major problem here! Take off your blinders and realize that beach conservation and protection is our main concern as well! Personally, I'm grateful for the organizations which continue to fight for beach access.

After all, isn't that why CCNS was created in the first place? To ensure that all future generations could experience those beaches in their natural state? I really don't think severe restrictions and/or total lack of beach access was what The Kennedy Administration had in mind...

Open your eyes Mr. Dalton!

John Nathan

We didn't have to wait very long, Lee.

Competition for space: people WANT the beach for recreational pursuits; piping plovers NEED the beach for nesting. The human population is about 7 billion; piping plovers are an endangered species.

I am more than happy to refrain from activities that endanger the plovers, or any other species whose survival is dependent on human behavior. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee" applies not only to individuals, but to species, and even entire civilizations.

Ms. Conn gives me confidence that our natural resources will be cared for, protected, and preserved by the next generation.

I also camp on Race Point beach and belong to the MBBA. I have been there when a piping plover will walk by the campers SCV. They do not seem upset, scared or phased that we are there, more curious. I believe (my opinion) that with activity on the beach it deters the preditors, why do the birds always plant their nest close by the SCV area? I understand we need to protect all species and I understand some people are ignorant about beach conservation, but I do believe we can coexist. We have offered to help with monitoring the nest and escorting ORV's past the bird enclosures. Main concern is the ORV's who do not know anything about protecting the beach and birds.

Yes I am angry, with beach closures. I am angry with those who only want to "GO 4 WHEELN". I have been camping on Race Point beach since 1960, and I can see both sides. There have been many suggestions made on how we could all make this work, too bad no one is listening.

Given that the plovers have been given free reign over tyhe beaches of Cape Hatteras and Cape Cod and still the numbers remain less than steller points to the fact the giving these birds 1,000 meter radius buffers does little to provide the protection they would require to succeed. Proof here is there is or have been 22 nests on the islands of Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke and only 11 birds fledged... Seems something is eating well.

As far as the imfamous Lee Dalton... You and anyone else for that matter cannot even walk on a number of beaches in Cape Hatteras because of the restrictions... So as you always leave out pedestrians in your comments about these closures. The predators killing these birds is more along the lines of Ghost crabs and avian species like a hawk...


Picking on only crows and foxes is providing false ammunition to the people not knowledgable in what is really going on... Kind of like stating ORV's are the only culprits when they are only a small percentage of the real problem like pedestrians accounting for most closure violations.

It is silly to have a National park for the people to enjoy that is covered in signs telling you there is no access allowed. I only wish plovers or some other endangered species would nest at the whitehouse, yellowstone, mount rushmore and the grand canyon... then they would close those as well... oooooops they do and they are not protected with thousand meter buffers in every direction!!!!

Please keep the spin alive to eliminate humans from accessing these national parks so the funding will be less important to keep.

Matt, I'm waiting to see the latest plover numbers from Cape Hatteras, and unless you already have them, it might be premature to declare "the numbers remain less than steller points."

I did note where seashore officials say sea turtle nestings have gone up quite significantly -- from an average of 77.4 nests per year from 2000-2007 to an average of 129 nests per year from 2008-2011, seasons when night driving on the beaches was banned.

As for picking on crows and foxes, I was merely pointing to one effort at Cape Cod to reduce predation, not aiming to single out any species.

I feel greatly honored to be labled as "infamous" by anon. Thank you for the compliment. And John, you just proved my point. I do appreciate the respect you've shown in your comments.

As for leaving out pedestrians from my posts, I might point out that there have been a bunch of times when I've been hiking and have encountered a sign forbidding entry to an area where nesting or other wildlife activities are in progress. The most recent was along the shore of Willard Bay State Park where several bald eagles were nesting. Then there are all the hundreds of times I've been reminded of the need to stay on the trail to avoid damage to cyrptogamic soils in desert areas. Another was in southestern Idaho where an area was closed for revegetation. I don't think closing an area to protect animal or plant life is any different than telling humans they need to stay on boardwalks in Yellowstone to protect them from scalding. We are all inhabitants of this planet. Perhaps we all need to learn to respect one another. But we humans are the only species capable of reasoned thought.

Just too bad some of us have such a hard time using that capability.

In Cape Hatteras, closing the beaches and increased trapping of predators occurred the same year, yet only closing the beaches gets credited with the increase plovers.

Stop the trapping and see if the closures are actually doing anything.

I think isolating the zone differently might help the public accept what is being done, as well as educating them as far as the importance of the work being done. Sometimes all it takes is a "natural" fence between the public and the nesting areas, so that people won't even think of going there.
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Either way, at this stage a compromise is needed between the public and the protection of the pipling plovers. It's very strategical to try and have the public on one's side, even though it's very difficult to achieve if limits and rules are not clear for everyone

At this point the plovers are not really doing any better than previous years. And we are now learning the previous years to the consent decree did not have the intensive monitoring they had the past couple years. So those pre-consent decree numbers are very suspect... It may not be a lack of birds but a lack of effort to find them.

Turtles have been nesting in record numbers all over the south east coast the past couple of years. There is no reason to believe the night time driving restrictions have made any difference, espcially since the false crawl ratio is just as high prior to the night time restriction started...

While the NPS has killed thousands of animals with their predator management, closed off miles of beaches to pedestrians and ORVs, the new rules/restricitions haven't made any significant difference to success or failure of the birds or turtles. These changes have only turned away visitors.

I agree that the preditors are the problem at this point, but that is politcal. An EA needs to be filed to properly control the preditors that we, as humans, have influenced over a couple of centuries. The crows would not be around the beach if beach vistors would not leave food around, and the coyotes would not be so abuntant if we did not hunt all the wolves to local extintion. Before all the fencing went, humans were the main impact to this species. The eggs look like rocks and without a trained eye people stepped on the nest, hence the fencing. I hope this helps a little more and if you want to read more there are plenty of science journals about plovers on Google Scholar.

and if the ice age and a meteor did not happen then the dinosaurs would eat plovers every day... Nice fairy tale.

ps it is not just fencing it is 1000 meter buffers in all directions in some locations.

If an ice age and meteors were caused by humans, you'd have a point. Otherwise, you're completely missing the early anon's point.

ProveProve the plovers are not being eaten by ghost crabs!