Provincetown News and Information

Piping Plover time again at Cape Cod National Seashore

Published: Sat April 15, 2006
By: Straight Dope in Provincetown > Open To The Public
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“Protecting Shorebirds,” states the sign that greets one at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. “Beach-nesting birds (tern and plover) must have quiet stretches of beach for their young to hatch and grow. People and their activities can threaten this cycle of life.

“A predator can frighten adult birds into abandoning their nests,” it continues. “A dog, even on a leash, looks like a predator. So does a kite; shorebirds can mistake it for a hawk.”

Violations of these rules can result in fines or worse, but after many a late spring or early summer trek to the mile-long stretch of Nauset Spit, the rangers or any other law enforcement folk are the least of my concerns. No, I endured what many a beachgoer may never experience.

It was “The Attack of the Shorebirds.”

Terns and piping plovers, now considered “threatened species,” are hardly imposing creatures. Each measuring well under a foot,Charadrius melodus and the various forms of terns roam the beaches of Outer Cape Cod, holding a strong preference for barrier beaches. I’ve always been amused by plovers, sandpipers and sanderlings, especially with the way that they scoot about on the sand, resembling some sort of wind-up toy running wild.

A large part of the spit will soon be roped off to accommodate the nesting birds, but the string barrier usually allows for one small path to cut across from the beach to Nauset Marsh. The bird protectors have OK’d this path to be used, but apparently someone forgot to tell the birds, particularly the terns. The sign says, “Access to Nauset Marsh”—but not if these guys have anything to do with it.

After roaming down Coast Guard Beach one spring day a few years ago, I started back toward the Coast Guard Station and figured that I’d go have a look at the marsh. As I started to walk down the path, two terns began circling around my head, stopped in mid-air and hovered about 15 feet or so above me, chattering madly.

These birds were not happy. They were telling me to “get the (censored whistling chirp) out of here. NOW. Not in a few minutes - NOW!”

This continued as long as I stayed on the path. A group of walkers came through from the marsh side, so I moved back to the beach to get out of their way. These people must have been shaking their heads as they left, for the birds were pulling the same stunt with them. No doubt, there was plenty of nesting going on, and no one—but no one—was going to be welcome here.

The group moved on, and I went back on to the path. The plovers’ hovering ritual continued, then one or two would actually begin to dive-bomb in my direction, only to suddenly turn away at the last second. I had to wonder—these little critters don’t sit at the windows of motel windows and catch a few glimpses of old Alfred Hitchcock movies on cable TV, do they?

People weren’t the only ones in danger. Any gulls that chose to pass over this area were also quickly escorted away by a smaller, feathered dive-bomber. This area wasn’t safe for man or beast. Even though they’re only the size of a man’s hand, they demand respect.

There’s no question that the plovers and terns need an undisturbed area for their nesting. As humans, we hog up enough of the earth, and all we really need to relinquish to these critters is a few miles of beach every spring and summer. But what if they wanted more? Perhaps this is where Hitchcock got his ideas.

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