Threatened Dune Lovers
BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
For decades, a war of sorts erupted every spring across our Atlantic and Gulf Coast beachfronts when greedy beachfront developers and unthinking beachgoers collectively wiped out thousands of acres of critical dune nesting habitat for shorebirds—especially the Wilson’s and piping plovers.
One of this war’s principal battles took place at Sandbridge Beach, Virginia, a fragile five-mile-long strip of land nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Back Bay on the very southern tip of Virginia’s coastline. Sandbridge was developed in the 1950s in the worst possible way. The largest houses were built across the foredunes, leaving no natural protective barrier from nature’s wrath. Construction of these beachfront mansions wiped out most of the nesting habitat for Wilson’s and piping plovers and they quickly disappeared from Sandbridge Beach.
This same scenario has played out time and again on ocean shorelines up and down our Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, causing dramatic overall declines in these two plover populations. Because of this wanton destruction of its habitat, the piping plover was designated as one of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s “showcase” threatened and endangered species in 1986.
Piping plovers are, in general, cute little birds about the size of a sparrow. They get their “piping” common name from the plaintive bell-like whistles they make when the males are setting up territories and looking for mates. They typically bounce merrily along through their dune habitats, running in short spurts then stopping to look around, then running a little further. In her book The Bluebird Effect, naturalist Julie Zickefoose describes plover chicks as “looking like dust bunnies blowing across the hot sand.”
Proudly patrolling his sand dune home, a Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) stops to admire his tidal surroundings. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)
With their prim and proper feathering and posture, male Wilson’s and piping plovers remind me of little old men in top hats ambling along, stopping every few feet to doff their hats to a lady. However, if the “lady” plovers are anywhere around, they’re certainly well hidden—perhaps they’re actually doing something productive while the male birds are hobnobbing through the dunes.
There is some good news on the development front: For the past twenty years, we’ve been doing a much better job of designing our beachfront communities and protecting plover habitats. Along northwest Florida’s Route 30A—the Emerald Coast Highway—a string of new sustainably designed communities has left the foredune systems completely untouched. In fact, the foredunes are featured as key visual amenities for marketing these properties.
Elsewhere, wildlife managers are routinely placing wire cages and fences around plover nests, creating “exclosures” that allow the adult birds and chicks to go in and out but keep ground predators, roaming pets, free-ranging ORVs, and traipsing beachgoers away. Most national seashores and other public beaches now limit beach and dune access to pedestrians and ORVs throughout the plover’s spring nesting season. As a result, the overall population of piping plovers has been steadily increasing since 1991.
Thanks to all these protective measures, Wilson’s and piping plovers are finally winning a few battles.
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.