The Good Harbor Beach Parking Lot Plover
The story of a remarkably spirited pair of birds and how a community came together to help in their struggle for survival
By Kim Smith
May 6, 2019
For the past four years, beginning in May of 2016, a pair of Piping Plovers has been calling the sandy shores of Good Harbor Beach their home. Located in the seaside city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Good Harbor Beach is the city’s most popular beach. Visitors are attracted to her natural beauty, soft sandy beach, and gently sloping shoreline. Good Harbor Beach provides a beautiful and well-kept location for every kind of fun-in-the-sun activity, and beachgoers can be found swimming, sunbathing, surfing, picnicking, volleyball playing, jogging, strolling, kite flying, and wind surfing. Even weddings take place at Gloucester’s welcoming “little good harbor” at the edge of the sea.
The Piping Plovers arrive from where no one knows for sure. Perhaps they wintered at the wide sandy beaches of North Carolina’s Cape Lookout, or further south at the highly productive tidal flats of the Laguna Madre in Texas, or southwestward at the remote Turks and Caicos Island of Little Water Cay. What we do know is the pair is arriving earlier and earlier each spring. Is it because they are older and are more familiar with landmarks marking the migratory route? Do they arrive earlier because they are stronger flyers, or because they now have a specific destination in mind?
Piping Plovers winter primarily along Gulf Coast beaches from Florida to northern Mexico, along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida, and at Caribbean Islands.
For whatever reason, in 2018, the male and female arrived at Good Harbor Beach in early April.
That year coastal regions all along the Eastern seaboard had been devastated by four late winter nor’easters and Good Harbor was no exception. The beach had narrowed greatly while great expanses of dune had eroded or simply disappeared.
Soon several more Piping Plovers, and a single Dunlin, arrived to join the scene. The small flock of shorebirds appeared weary after what must have been a wild and windy northward migration, and all spent several days recuperating by resting on the beach and foraging at the tidal flats.
Foraging and flying through spring wind storms and snow squalls.
Despite April snow squalls and a changed landscape, the Piping Plover mated pair set about reclaiming their previous years’ nesting site.
Mama Plover, left, and Papa Plover, right, shortly after arriving in April 2018
Piping Plovers are a shorebird so small you can easily hold one in the palm of your hand. They have a rounded head and rounded body feathered in coastal hues of sand and driftwood. Their jet-black eyes are large and expressive while slender yellow-orange legs propel them around the beach with lightning speed.
During the breeding season, the bill appears orange with a black tip, and both male and female sport a distinguishing crescent-shaped head band and black collar around the neck. All markings may be more pronounced in the male. By summer’s end, the collars and crowns of both male and female fade to gray and the bill becomes a solid black.
The Piping Plover’s (Charadrius melodus) name comes from the characteristic piping vocalizations the birds make. Warning of pending danger, the adult’s calls are sharply rattling. When parents are piping to their chicks, the peeps are softly melodic and barely audible. The most notable of all is the repetitious piping Papa makes to Mama, calling her to join him in courtship.
Within several days after arriving, the Good Harbor Beach Mama and Papa were courting and making nest scrapes on the sandy beach.
What does Piping Plover courtship look like? The male makes a small nest scrape in the sand about three to four inches in diameter, and only as deep as the saucer of a teacup. The scrape is not often tucked under vegetation or in the dunes, but sited between the wrack line and edge of the dune, open and exposed to all the world.
He pipes his mating call, urging the female to come inspect his handiwork, his mere little scrape. He’ll continue to pipe while tossing bits of seashells, dried seaweed, or tiny pebbles into the nest scrape. If she is enticed, and that is a very big if, she will make her way to the nest scrape.
The male will continue refining the scrape, vigorously digging, with his legs going a mile a minute and sand flying in every direction. If he’s proven his nest building skills, she’ll peer into the nest. With tail feathers fanned widely, he then bows. The female not only inspects the nest, but the male’s cloaca, the V-shaped vent on the underside of a bird that is the opening to its digestive and reproductive tracts. If she decides to stay a moment longer, the male stands at attention with chest expanded while doing a high stepping dance around the female.
When and if satisfied with all her mate has to offer, she will position herself to allow the male to mount her. He dances more high steps upon her back in preparation for the “cloacal kiss,” where they touch cloaca to cloaca. It only takes a few seconds for sperm to be transferred to the female. Up to this point all has appeared rather courtly and refined, so it is always surprising to observe the last bit of the mating encounter where the male holds the female down to the ground with a rough hold on her neck for several more moments, after which she will pick herself up and run off. From separate stances, they end with a round of preening before then dozing off or zipping off to the shoreline to forage for food.
The Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers courtship and mating
Enter the troublesome “Bachelor.” Each year, the Good Harbor Beach nesting pair have an unmated male joining the mating game, and does he ever like to cause trouble. The Bachelor is constantly in the pair’s established territory, not only trying to trick Mama into mating with him, but later in the season will fly aggressively at the young chicks and fledglings.
Countless Piping Plover smackdowns ensue, where the Papa and the Bachelor repeatedly run pell-mell torpedo-like towards each other, then puffing out their feathers to appear larger, brandishing their wings and oftentimes biting, and then retreating. Sometimes the female joins the battle with a flourish of wings and both do figure eight flights and run-abouts all around the Bachelor. At other times, she watches from a distance as the two duke it out. Most often the dual ends with the mated pair heading to their respective corner of the beach, while the lonely Bachelor lays low.
Trouble with unmated males, “disrupters,” so to speak, is not uncommon to the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers. A great deal of time and energy is spent by males defending their territories from other males.
Depending on weather and air temperature, the female begins laying eggs in the nest scrape. In Massachusetts, this usually takes place near towards the end of April or at the beginning of May. Stormy weather, cooler temperatures, and disturbances by dogs often result in delayed nesting. She usually lays four eggs, less typically three. She does not lay all the eggs all at once, but one every day, or every other day, over an approximate week-long period.
Not until three eggs have been laid do the plovers begin continuously sitting on the nest. During daylight hours, both the male and female take equal turns brooding the eggs. The “changing of the guard” takes place in half hour intervals and the nest is never left unprotected, unless a predator is being chased off the scene.
The Atlantic Coast breeding population has more than doubled, from 790 pairs when it was first listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. Over these past thirty-plus years, collaborating conservation organizations throughout the bird’s breeding regions have devised a practical way to help keep people and pets out of endangered and threatened shorebird nesting areas. Symbolic areas are roped off, with “keep out” signs that explain to beachgoers about the nesting birds.
DCR symbolic fencing
In 2018, the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plover pair arrived on April 3, nearly a month earlier than in previous years. At the time of their arrival, the citywide leash laws allowed for dogs on the beach during the month of April; however, symbolic fencing was installed and a designated area was clearly defined. The mated pair began to zero in on one particular nest scrape only a few feet away from where they had nested the prior two years.
Piping Plover eggs, chicks, and hatchlings are subject to predation, mostly from avian predators, and largely by crows and gulls. Adult Piping Plovers perceive all canids as threats, whether a dog on leash, a dog off leash, fox, or coyote, largely because fox eat Piping Plover eggs and because off-leash dogs chase shorebirds, inadvertently step on the eggs, and with their curious nature, generally disrupt the nesting area.
Vandalism, bonfires and dog disturbance in the nesting area
The Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers were no exception. Because of the constant disruption by dogs running off leash through the roped off nesting area at Good Harbor Beach, the pair were shunted off the beach and began spending their days huddled on the white lines in the adjacent parking lot. After several warm April weekend beach days, when each day there were several hundred off leash dogs, with dozens tearing through the nesting area, on April 22 the birds made their first nest scrape on one of the white lines in the parking lot.
To you and I, nesting in the parking lot may seem like a crazy alternative, but when you think about it, their solution was really quite smart. At Good Harbor Beach during the month of April, there is street parking for beachgoers and few, if any, cars are in the parking lot. Most people are walking their pets on the beach, not in the lot. And the painted white lines provide camouflage in much the same way as does beach sand.
Parking lot nest scrape, 2018
Calls for help were made to the community, urgently requesting that people keep their off leash dogs out of the roped off nesting areas. Many people made an effort to control their dogs, but many did not, and on May 5, the first egg was laid in the parking lot nest.
Within hours after the egg was discovered, Gloucester’s DPW crew, under the direction of Mike Hale and Joe Lucido, erected a barricade around the nest so that the egg would not be run over by a vehicle. Many in the community rallied around the displaced plover family. After the second egg was laid, Dave Rimmer, director of land stewardship at Essex County Greenbelt Association, along with his assistant Mike Carbone, placed around the nest a wire exclosure.
An exclosure is used to protect the eggs of threatened and endangered species. The structure is approximately four feet in diameter, constructed with wire that allows the birds and chicks to run freely through the openings, but is too small an opening to allow most predators to enter.
A group of dedicated Piping Plover volunteer monitors set up camp in the parking lot and began monitoring the nest from sunrise to sunset. It was a highly unnatural situation and distressing to observe the birds brooding the eggs while also trying to defend their foraging territory on the beach. Piping Plover mated pairs communicate constantly with piping calls, and with one in the parking lot sitting on the nest and the other on the beach foraging, they were beyond hearing range from one another.
As the chick’s hatching day drew closer, advice was sought from John Regosin, deputy director of MassWildlife, on how to help the Piping Plover family return to the beach after the chicks had hatched.
Piping Plover chicks are impossibly adorable. Unlike songbirds that hatch blind, naked, and helpless, Piping Plover chicks are precocial, which means that within hours of emerging they are able to move about and feed themselves. Weighing about as much as a nickel, the downy balls of fluff are at first clumsy, falling over themselves and tripping about on oversized feet. Although they can feed themselves, the hatchlings are not completely mature and still need parents to help regulate their body temperature. The chicks snuggle under Mom and Dad for warmth and protection.
Chicks learn quickly, and after the first day, are fully mobile, confidently zooming around the beach. There are few baby birds more winsome at birth than Piping Plover chicks, and that is perhaps one of the reasons so many fall in love with these tiny creatures.
A portion of the parking lot was closed to beach traffic, and as was expected, within hours, the chicks were running in and out of the exclosure. By afternoon they were zing zanging around the parking lot, pecking at teeny insects found between the gravel stones.
Although an elaborate Piping Plover parking lot exit strategy had been devised, the Piping Plovers had their own solution in mind. The following afternoon, Dave Rimmer observed the tiny family of six attempt to depart the parking lot. They at first appeared to be heading to the beach via the marsh creek end, when they suddenly switched direction and started back in the opposite direction towards the boardwalk nearest their original beach nest site. They went part way down the boardwalk, and then headed back toward the parking lot, then back down the walk. The family next began to travel through the dunes in the opposite direction, toward the snack bar. After all the zig and zagging, the little family returned to the boardwalk, and then headed straight through the dunes, in the direction of the originally established beach nesting zone. For a few tense moments all sight of the chicks was lost, but the parents could be heard piping, urging the chicks onward. Suddenly, out they spilled, all four one-day old chicks, down the dune edge, into the roped off nesting area, and miraculously, within feet of where the adults had originally tried to nest.
It’s heartbreaking to write that three of the four chicks never made it past their first week. Volunteers witnessed one carried away by a gull and the second disappeared after an early morning dog disturbance in the nesting area. The third chick was observed taken away by a large crow. The fourth chick, the one named Little Pip by volunteer monitor Heather Hall, made it to two weeks. Both Little Pip and adults disappeared after what appeared to be an extreme disturbance by people and pets within the nesting area, made obvious by the many, many human and dog prints observed within the roped off area.
Much has changed for the better since the summer of 2018. Piping Plover recommendations were presented to the community by the author of this article. Gloucester’s Animal Advisory Committee, under the leadership of Alicia Pensarosa, developed a list of recommendations, which was presented in July of 2018. The Piping Plover volunteer monitors and Gloucester’s Animal Advisory Committee worked with Gloucester’s City Council members to change the ordinance to disallow pets on the beach after April 1. On February 27, 2019, the ordinance was passed with community-wide support and the full support of all members of the Gloucester City Council.
On March 25, 2019, the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plover pair returned, a full nine days earlier than in 2018. They were observed foraging at the shoreline, dozing off in the drifts of sand, and remarkably, the male was already displaying territorial behavior. The pair look plump and vigorous, not nearly as weary looking as the small band of Piping Plovers that arrived the previous year, on April 3, after the four late winter nor’easters.
The symbolic fencing was installed on March 27 by Dave Rimmer and his assistant Dave McKinnon. Despite the ordinance change, come April 1, off leash dogs were still on the beach running through the cordoned off areas. Old habits are heard to change, visitors from out of town were not yet aware of the new rules, and not everyone in the community had received word of the change.
After two weeks of dog disturbance through the protected nesting area, the mated pair began spending all their time on the white lines in the parking lot. Within days, they had made a new nest scrape in the white lines of the lot, very near to the previous year’s nest.
April 2019 – For the second year in a row, the Piping Plovers are again shunted off the beach and into the parking lot. They return to the white lines, make a nest scrape, and are courting
The volunteer monitors worked closely with city councilor Scott Memhard, whose ward Good Harbor Beach falls under, to better educate the community about the ordinance change. Gloucester’s Department of Public Works employees Mike Hale and Joe Lucido provided clear, unambiguous signage, and the mayor’s administration, working with the Gloucester Police Department, stepped up the animal control officer patrols and began issuing and enforcing the newly increased fines.
As a result, dog disturbances through the protected areas greatly decreased during the second half of April, creating the best possible outcome of all, and that is, the Piping Plovers have returned to their beach nest scrape!
We know not what the summer of 2019 holds for the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plover family. But by removing needless disturbance from dogs on the beach, we are at least providing the plovers with a fighting chance of successfully nesting on the beach, with the clear goal of fledging chicks.
Learning to fly
Warm weather brings an increased number of human and pet disturbances. People leaving trash behind on the beach attracts a great many crows and seagulls. Feeding the gulls and crows is illegal, but it is difficult to enforce laws of that nature.
Piping Plover eggs and chicks are in grave danger of being eaten by crows and gulls. The adults go to great lengths to distract gulls and crows from the nesting site, including feigning a broken wing and leading them away from the nest, to tag team flying after the much larger birds and nipping at their flight feathers. When the adult birds leave the nest to distract avian and canine creatures, the eggs and chicks are left vulnerable to attacks by avian predators. If the nest is destroyed, during a single season, Piping Plovers will re-lay eggs up to five times. The earlier in the season the birds are allowed to nest without disturbance, the greater the chance the chicks will survive.
A question often asked by beachgoers is why do Piping Plovers make their nest on the sandy beach where we like to recreate? Why don’t they nest in the dunes? The answer to that question is several fold. Piping Plovers evolved over millennia, long, long before there was recreational beach activity and the tremendous crowds seen today on sandy beaches, the preferred habitat of the Atlantic Coast Piping Plovers. The birds evolved with feathers that perfectly mirror the hues of sand, dry seaweed, and dry beach grass, providing camouflage and safety for the adults and chicks. In dune vegetation, their pale color would make them an easy target.
Because Piping Plover chicks are precocial, within days of hatching they feed at the water’s edge. They are so tiny, weighing only 5.5 grams at birth, and they need unfettered access to feed at the water. The hatchlings would surely be lost or eaten if home base were in the dunes.
Another comment heard is, “Well, they are obviously genetically inferior and stupid birds because they are unable to adapt to our human activity, you know, survival of the fittest, and all that.” Nothing could be further from the truth. By the earlier part of the previous century, the plume hunters hired by the millinery trade to provide feathers, and even whole birds, to adorn women’s hats, had nearly hunted Piping Plovers and many other species of birds to extinction. Under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which prohibits the taking of migratory birds, their eggs, and nests, the Piping Plover population began to recover. Tragically, beginning in the mid-twentieth century the population again plummeted, as habitat was lost to development, recreational use greatly intensified along the Atlantic Coast, and predation increased.
The Atlantic Coast Piping Plovers are slowly making a comeback because of tremendous conservation efforts. Massachusetts is at the leading edge of Piping Plover recovery, and other states and provinces comprising the Atlantic Coast populations are learning from protocols and guidelines established by Massachusetts Piping Plover conservation partners. These partners include the Trustees of Reservations Shorebird Protection Program, MassWildlife, Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program, Essex County Greenbelt’s Land Conservation Program, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (MDCR), and communities all along the Massachusetts coastline with burgeoning populations of Piping Plovers.
I am hopeful for the future of our Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers. It takes time and patience to effect change and we have come a very long way in four years. Nearly everyone we speak with has fallen in love with the plovers. Working with our dedicated volunteer monitors, Mike Hale, Joe Lucido, and the entire crew of Gloucester’s Department of Public Works, Gloucester’s Animal Advisory Committee, former police chief John McCarthy, Mayor Romeo-Theken’s administration, animal control officers Teagan and Jamie, Dave Rimmer and the Essex County Greenbelt staff, city councilor Scott Memhard, and nearly all the members of Gloucester’s City Council, I have met some of the kindest and most tender hearted people. Documenting the story of the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers though writing, photographing, and filmmaking, while learning and sharing with my community along the way, has provided a fascinating window into the life story and challenges of this surprisingly tough, resilient, and beautiful little shorebird.
Monday, May 6, 2019. As I write this, earlier today I observed Essex Greenbelt’s Dave Rimmer and intern Fiona Hill install a wire exclosure around the Piping Plover’s nest. The nest is on the beach! And very close to where the pair nested in 2016 and 2017.
Last Friday, I noticed the pair had zeroed in on a nest scrape far back in the roped off area, well clear of the high tide line. A stick protruding from the sand adjacent to the nest makes it easy to spot the location. There are bits of shells, dried seaweed, and small pieces of driftwood surrounding the outer perimeter of the nest and it is very well disguised. Nice location Mama and Papa, well done! Mama was in the nest moving her belly and legs, as if turning the eggs. Papa showed up about twenty minutes later and they changed places, he to sit on the nest, and she to forage. They have been continuously sitting on the nest since Saturday.
Dave and Fiona constructed the wire exclosure outside the nesting area to minimize disturbance. With great caution, they approached the nest. It was Papa’s shift and he valiantly tried everything he could to try to distract us from his nest of eggs, piping loudly and running very near to Dave and Fiona while displaying a “broken” wing. It only took the two of them fifteen minutes to place the exclosure around the nest, and within a moment after completion, Papa was back on the nest brooding the eggs.
Papa feigning a broken wing to distract.
The Good Harbor Beach dunes and Piping Plover habitat is recovering from the late winter storms of 2018. Phil Cucuru points to how much of the beach washed away in the first photo (April, 2018). In the next photo, the space between the old dune fencing posts and the edge of the dune show how much of the dune was carved away. The last two photos show the new dune fencing and the natural recovery taking place.
Just some of the many friends of the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers – I wish I had photos of everyone 🙂