The Beach Times

Cape Cod’s Piping Plover Conundrum
Posted by Kinlin Grover | Monday, July 30, 2018

Piping plovers

When researching Cape Cod, you might come across people talking about the area's piping plover population. Unless you're a bird expert, however, there's a good chance you've never heard of species, nor would you realize why they are so well-known on the Cape. The piping plover, or Charadrius melodus, is a small shorebird with orange legs, brown and white feathers, and black bands on its forehead and chest. The bird's coloring means it blends in with the sand and, therefore, can be difficult to spot. Their small size – they're only 6-7.5 inches long and 1.5-2.5 ounces – also makes them hard to see.

Piping plovers arrive on Cape Cod every March or April, build a nest and give birth, and stick around into September, raising their young, before heading south for the winter. If you’re here in the spring or summer, you’ll have a chance to see them up close, as long as you know where to look. Keep in mind that there is more to this situation than a bird that happens to spend its summers on Cape Cod. Not everyone on Cape Cod is fond of these shorebirds, and there is some controversy regarding the piping plover and the local efforts to resurrect its population.


Piping Plover Numbers on Cape Cod

Overall, the piping plover is a near threatened species. This distinction means that while numbers aren't high, the birds aren't on the verge of extinction. It is estimated that 6,510 of these birds are currently in existence throughout North America. The problem is that the Atlantic coast population of the bird is far smaller, as only 1,800 pairs remain. In addition, only 680 breeding pairs make their way to Massachusetts annually. Back in 1986, 140 pairs returned to Massachusetts, so it's easy to see how the species has rebounded over the last three decades, but conservationists aren’t satisfied, as the birds remain protected under the Endangered Species Act. The exact number of piping plovers on Cape Cod is unknown, but estimates suggest 36 pairs appeared at the Cape Cod National Seashore in 2016. These numbers mean there is more work to be done if the piping plover is going to make a full recovery, which is why Cape Cod has introduced some restrictions during nesting season on beaches throughout the area.


Piping Plover Nesting Restrictions

The restrictions on piping plover nesting areas are actually quite relaxed, all things considered. The gist is that you have to keep your distance from their nests because they are so delicate. On beaches where the birds are nesting, there will be a temporary fence built around the upper part of the beach to protect the eggs and the plover chicks. Just keep your distance from these areas, and you can go about your business on the beach without being bothered. If the birds happen to nest on a beach where off-road vehicles are allowed, the entire beach is closed to these vehicles for a few months while the chicks grow strong enough to fend for themselves. These beach closures aren’t unique to Cape Cod, as they occur throughout Massachusetts as a method of keeping the nests and eggs safe from vehicle traffic.

The key here is that the chicks are virtually helpless for the first few months of their lives. And since they blend in with the sand, you’d have very little chance of seeing a nest when approaching it in a vehicle. These restrictions by the wildlife service are one of the reasons why the bird’s population has recovered, so those who are working to save the species want to see them remain in place indefinitely.


The Controversy on Cape Cod

The protectionism of the piping plover isn’t without its controversy, as there are those who believe closing entire stretches of beach every year is problematic, especially during the busy season. Most years, for example, a section of Nauset Beach is shut down for months at a time, leaving locals and visitors alike extremely frustrated. If you own a business or property near a piping plover nesting area, you won’t be happy about their presence because it can hurt your bottom line. After all, if locals and visitors can’t access the nearby beach, and your business is beach-centric, you could experience financial problems as a result. Likewise, if you’re a local resident who has paid for a season’s over-sand permit, and now you can’t take your vehicle to your favorite spot, you might be a little upset. Beach closures are rare issues that only arise periodically, however, and many believe the small inconvenience is worth it when saving such a sensitive species.

Another issue is that the piping plover population seems to have plateaued in recent years, despite efforts to increase their numbers even further. It is believed this plateau is the result of their natural predators keeping their amounts in check, rather than human-caused interference, so those who aren’t fond of the beach restrictions believe that people aren’t, in fact, the problem. As with any argument, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but for now, we’ll continue to see these nests protected in an attempt to improve the piping plover’s population.


Preserving the Piping Plover for the Future

The hope is that the efforts put forth will help the piping plover population on Cape Cod to continue to grow so that future generations can enjoy these birds. After all, we’re the ones vacationing on their natural habitat, so the least we can do is respect their space when raising their young. If you want to do your part, start by obeying all signs and fences that are posted on the beaches to protect the wildlife. You should also avoid approaching the birds or their nests at any time. There will usually be restrictions on dogs on beaches with a piping plover population, but if pets are permitted, keep them on a leash.

The beach's ecosystem is remarkably delicate and losing even a small part of it can lead to greater problems down the line. Do your part to protect the piping plover so that those seeking Cape Cod vacation rentals in the future will also have a chance to enjoy them.

Piping Plovers

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