Solving the Piping Plover Puzzle
Piping plovers are famous summer residents of beaches and lakeshores--the most adorable argument against development and reckless recreation. Yet where many spend the winter has long been a mystery. Until now.
"Here's where I begin to get nervous," she said. A fox had been roaming the peninsula all summer, which might explain why a week earlier one of the four chicks from this plover family went missing. Dikun stepped forward slowly. If the birds remained motionless, it would be nearly impossible to spot them. They can appear for a moment, run a few feet, then stop and simply disappear into the background like jigsaw puzzle pieces set into place.
"There," Dikun said. "There they are. And there are still three chicks." Despite the time it took to get to these birds, we watched them for only a few minutes. As ground-nesting birds, piping plovers are easily disturbed by human activity, and easy pickings for many predators. On our walk back, Dikun showed me one of the "exclosures"--a 10-foot-diameter cylinder of turkey wire--that are erected around plover nests to keep out raccoons, foxes, gulls, dogs, and feral cats, to name a few common predators.
Near the end of our walk back, Sue Wuehler, manager of Orient Beach State Park, picked us up in a four-wheel-drive park vehicle. We approached a roped-off section of the beach posted with "keep out" signs explaining that endangered species may be nesting in the area. A man, oblivious to the park vehicle approaching, casually lifted the rope and walked inside--to pick up some stones for his daughters he said when Wuehler asked what he thought he was doing. A short but pointed lecture followed. "People see mountains and forests and they think 'nature,'" Dikun later said, "but they don't think of beaches the same way."
The following day we visited several beaches in heavily populated areas, including a private beach open to club members only--and to two Bahamas plovers. One of the banded birds ("light green-black" for the band combination on its right leg) was alone, its nest lost to predators a few weeks earlier, but the second bird ("blue-red") was holding its own. Earlier, however, this bird and its mate had moved each time someone tried to set up a protective exclosure around them, beginning a new nest at every attempt. "We had to give up on the exclosure," Dikun said. "Now we're just hoping no predators get to them."
We walked east down the beach near the waterline, staying as far as possible from the roped-off nesting area. Dikun set up her spotting scope about 75 yards away. "An adult is still sitting on eggs," she said. "That's good."
In a few weeks this bird--all of two ounces--would likely set off on a 1,000-mile-plus journey back to the Bahamas and spend the winter near where it had been banded. If that's the case, it could fight the headwinds of bad weather, locate places to rest on beaches that have not been degraded by development or "beach stabilization" projects, dodge off-road vehicles, elude predators, and all the while stay on course over open waters.
Typically, the adults leave first, followed by the young, but there would be no young for "blue-red" and its mate. A couple of weeks after I'd left, Dikun wrote to say that a predator had made quick work of the eggs.
Something more insidious than a fox or feral cat is creeping over the beaches in the Bahamas, a shrub with thick, smooth oblong leaves: Scaevola taccada, commonly called white inkberry. This alien from the Pacific--often accompanied by another invasive exotic, the Australian pine, Casuarina equisetifolia--is covering the sandy place just above the wrack line, destroying much of the kelp-strewn area where the piping plovers rest at high tide.
Both plants are gaining a foothold in the Joulters. And as we look for plovers at several sites on North Andros's eastern shore, we find the invaders nearly everywhere. No one has been tracking the plants' spread, but Hardy Eshbaugh, a former Audubon board member who co-led field courses on Andros for Miami University from 1978 to 1995, is shocked by how many beaches have been taken over by white inkberry since he was last here.
One local business owner is trying to help combat the invading plants. Brian Hew, owner of Kamalame Cay, an exclusive resort that caters to celebrities, removed the white inkberry and Australian pine covering his resort's beaches. And the plovers came back. When we visited him, he and Golder wound up chatting about setting up observation stations for his guests and creating artificial islands where shorebirds could roost.
In the end, the trip's piping plover grand total is 461 birds, more than five percent of the species' total population. Finding this many birds in a few days (how many more are out there?) makes Andros Island and the Joulter Cays invaluable to the Atlantic Coast population.
A few weeks later Jeffery trades in his kayak for a seat at a board meeting at the Bahamas National Trust, a non-governmental organization commissioned by the government to run the national park system*. The new data help make a convincing case that efforts to preserve the Joulters will be key for protecting piping plovers--as well as the Bahamas' tourism-based economy. Andros Island and the cays surrounding it are among the world's premier bonefishing sites. As luck would have it, good bonefish habitat is good plover habitat. Bonefish, the Formula 1 race car among fish, provide what is often referred to as the ultimate saltwater fly-fishing experience (an experience that raked in nearly $141 million in 2009).