So you think life is tough? You should be a baby piping plover. Born in a mere scrape in the sand, expected by your parents to fend for yourself from birth, facing danger at every turn from skunks, raccoons, crows, hawks, storms, off-road tires.
And yet the tiny birds — and there are not that many of them left — appear to be doing pretty well on the Vineyard this year, albeit with the help of a social safety net that would be the envy of hard-scrabble humans.
There are, by best estimates, maybe two dozen pairs nesting on the Island so far this year.
The first clutch of chicks hatched at Tashmoo on May 24. On other beaches all over the Vineyard, more happy events have since happened or are imminent. But the perpetuation of the threatened species is thanks as much to the efforts of human midwives as to the plover parents.
Ring the shorebird information line and you’ll learn that large parts of the East Beach on Chappaquiddick are closed to over-sand vehicles, lest roaming chicks be killed. Further closures are imminent on the Edgartown side of Norton Point.
Talk to Emily Reddington, the Islands coordinator for the coastal waterbirds program of the Audubon Society of Massachusetts, and she’ll describe in detail what amounts to a housing and security program for the little birds.
Add up all the people employed by various conservation agencies or who volunteer their time to help the plovers successfully breed, and you have darned nearly as many people as there are birds.
But there is cautious reason to believe it all is helping.
“They are listed as threatened both at state and federal levels,” said Matt Pelikan, a keen birder and the Islands program director for The Nature Conservancy, “but they’ve rebounded slightly from their low point of maybe two decades ago.”
Still, they lead a tenuous existence. And to an extent they always have, for two reasons. The first is their choice of nesting places.
“They nest in a very dynamic environment, on barrier beaches, so their numbers can vacillate wildly over the short term,” said Mr. Pelikan. “A single storm at the wrong time can wipe out the entire recruitment from that year. And then a few years later, there can be a very good year, where they produce multiple clutches.”
The second thing about piping plovers is that they do not feed their young, like most birds.
Said Ms. Reddington: “These tiny chicks are precocious, walking within their first day. They have to fend for themselves and find food from their very first day. They have to eat so much, all day and all night, as to double their mass within the first 48 hours.
“They will die if they don’t get to feed constantly for the first two days.”
It’s a tough evolutionary niche they occupy, but it worked for them for a long time.
Now, though, said Mr. Pelikan, “with so much human activity on the beaches, it’s not such a great strategy.
“One of the classic ways for piping plover chicks to die is getting caught in the wheel ruts on a jeep road across the beach. And the side of the rut is steep and they can’t get out, and the next car comes along and mashes them.”
Also, human activity like fishing leaves behind waste which encourages predators like skunks.
And so there is a need to redress the balance in favor of the birds.
The first step is protecting the eggs from predators. To this end, once nesting sites are located, enclosures [or more properly exclosures, since they are designed not to keep the birds in, but the predators out], are built.
“We dig a trench, in a hexagonal shape about 10 feet in diameter, with a one-by-one-inch metal fence around it, dug down six to eight inches. A one-inch mesh net is put over the top. So the plover can walk in and out, but predators can’t get through,” said Ms. Reddington.
“It keeps out skunks, raccoons, crows, hawks. We don’t use the exclosure once they’ve hatched.”
Building the exclosures is the labor intensive part of safeguarding the birds, but the most nerve racking part comes after they hatch and begin to roam in search of food — small invertebrates in the intertidal areas and wrack lines on the beaches.
And, said the Islands regional director for The Trustees of Reservations, Chris Kennedy, it gets more worrying as they grow.
“The chicks take four weeks to mature. The first two weeks they are very dependent on parents to protect them. But in the final two weeks these little guys will range far and wide — they’re feeling their oats almost like teenagers at that point — and they will often separate.”
And that’s why cars get excluded from significant areas of beach for a few weeks each year.
“Right now we’ve got nine piping plover nests from Norton Point all the way around to the gut,” said Mr. Kennedy.
“This is about double what we had last year at this point.”
And so the beach closures have begun. On Chappaquiddick, Leland beach is closed from about 200 yards south of the Dike Bridge to Wasque. The beach is open north to the Cape Pogue elbow, but closed from there to the gut.
“We’ve also got four [nests] on the Edgartown side of the Norton Point breach, which is perfect plover habitat in that in the winter we had several storms that overwashed, which means large open sandy areas devoid of dunes and beach grass,” Mr. Kennedy said.
“We are expecting some partial or perhaps even total closure of Norton Point Beach on the Edgartown side, on or about June 23.”
People can check closures, by calling 508-696-0731.
It’s a big deal protecting the little birds, and Mr. Kennedy acknowledges not everyone appreciates the efforts made, although more and more do.
“You know, 20 years ago, there was a lot of open resistance from fishermen, but I think now we’re a little older and wiser. Now with very few exceptions when we talk to fishermen they understand.
“Piping plovers have no other place to nest Mother Nature — their genetic profile decrees they must nest on beaches. And there are so very few of these birds. We’ve got fewer piping plovers left in this world than we do African elephants,” he said, adding:
“We just have to allow them the time to nest, raise their young and then leave the property. When you look at the entire fishing season, it’s a very small portion of it. For many fishermen that’s not much of a sop, but we need to take a step back, look at the big picture, recognize the Trustees are predicated on public access but also have a responsibility to protect the resources that we find on our properties.”
The good news is that all the effort and the inconvenience appear to be paying some dividends. Both here and on Nantucket. Mr. Kennedy said, the birds are nesting in greater numbers. They are also, interestingly, reproducing earlier. Ms. Reddington said one pair on the mainland hatched their first chick on April 19, a record.
But to adapt an old saying, you shouldn’t count your chicks until they’ve fledged and flown. And these things are measured quite precisely. The critical number is 1.24. If, on average, each nesting pair successfully rears that number of chicks to fledging, it is a good year.
And fledging, Ms. Reddington said, is defined as when the chick is able to fly more than 50 feet or has made it to its 26th day of life.