The post-mortem report on the tiny bird was clinically graphic.
The chick was laterally compressed, with internal trauma to the right side, and hepatic, pulmonary and intestinal rupturing. The left eye contained sand grains adhered to the surface and compressed within, misshaping it. There was trauma to the left side of the brain and the pelvis was squashed out of alignment.
“The bird was otherwise in good condition, and results are consistent with the hypothesis that the chick died from being crushed,” the report said.
It was only a little bird, so some may think only a little tragedy.
But the chick was a baby piping plover, a protected species, designated threatened under both the federal and Massachusetts Endangered Species Acts in 1986. Only a couple of dozen pairs nest on Martha’s Vineyard each year, so it’s a big deal for people who care about conservation.
And it could be a big deal as well for the person who left a trail of footprints into the closed area around the plover’s nest on State Beach last week. The crushed bird was found in one of the footprints.
The law imposes fines of up to $25,000 for “taking a single plover adult, egg, or chick; these regulations include harassment in the form of disturbance, outright destruction, and major alterations of habitat.”
And stepping on a chick counts as a taking.
That is, of course, in the remote chance that the person who did it could be identified.
The chick was found dead at 9:10 a.m. last Tuesday by a staff member of the Mass Audubon Society’s coastal waterbird program, Stephanie Kelliher. The chick was within a 50-meter (roughly 150 foot) radius area enclosed with a symbolic fence and posted with warning signs.
The dead chick was found lying in what the Audubon report described as “a depression in the sand that resembled a footprint inside of the symbolic fencing just north of Big Bridge in Oak Bluffs on the ocean side of Joseph Sylvia State Beach.”
Sgt. Patrick Grady of the Massachusetts environmental police came to the scene. Dukes county manager Russell Smith also attended. United States Fish and Wildlife law enforcement was contacted.
But Becky Harris, director of the coastal waterbird program, said all the law enforcement people advised that there was not enough evidence to make a case.
She nonetheless sent the little body to a pathologist, Andrea Bogolmoni at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for a necropsy and CT scan, because, as she said: “I haven’t come across an example before as clear cut as this — a chick in a footprint.”
And although she said it is frustrating to her, she agreed the chances of finding the person who did this are slim. “Very, very slim, and this probably happens more often than we know,” she said, adding:
“In the few cases that have gone to court we have to send the bodies to a lab in Oregon, and they decompose and you can’t get much.”
This time, too, they haven’t go much, but the society wanted to release the report and pictures anyway, in the hope that the death will at least serve the purpose of reinforcing in people’s minds the reason sections of beach get closed off at this time of year.
“Sadly,” said Ms. Harris, “a plover chick’s response to a threat is to crouch in the lowest spot it can find. Someone could step on one and not even know.”
Another thing people might not know either — you don’t have to step on a plover to be in trouble with the law. You can be fined just for being inside the closed area.
Pets are not permitted on State Beach or any other Massachusetts beach between April 1 and August 31. Fireworks are prohibited from April 1 until all chicks have fledged and left the nest. Kite flying is prohibited within 200 meters of nesting or territorial adult or unfledged juvenile piping plovers between April 1 and August 31.
These are not, as Mr. Smith the county manager points out, major inconveniences.
“I mean, we’re not talking about moving people out of their houses or anything,” he said.
He also issued a warning.
“The county manages the beach for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, and . . . takes its stewardship of the land seriously,” he said. He continued:
“We are losing a species on the planet every 20 minutes. That rate is something on the order of 1,000 times the natural background.
“These are the times in which we live, and realizing the magnitude of what’s happening makes it clear we should do our little part here.
“Now, I’m not alleging any deliberate wrongdoing here. But we need to make it clear people are not allowed in the roped off areas.
“That beach has been used for 150 years, and during that time the birds have also been nesting there.
“We just have to make sure both interests are met. And it’s the county’s position that we protect the resource.”