As a student at Southampton College (back in the Long Island University days), I always heard of friends who signed up for the summer as plover stewards. Yet, never did I ever get the chance to experience a day in the life of these beach patrollers and defenders of tiny birds. That is, until now.
Thanks to Juliana Duryea, Stewardship Coordinator at I was able to experience a fascinating morning of “Where’s Waldo” on our local beaches this summer. Searching for tiny plovers and their chicks is just that – a very careful search. Adult plovers measure merely 5.5 inches long and weigh only 2.25 ounces! When you find what you’re looking for though, it is magic.
Though it would be super cute to see those cotton-ball-sized baby plovers in striped red and white t-shirts, they are perfectly adorable on their own. Look for the adult plover and its chicks will not be far away. Plovers and their chicks are well camouflaged to hide on the beach, and if you observe them patiently, you will see a mix of interesting behavior.
Our visit to in Greenport revealed two adult plovers seemingly herding their young down the pebble-filled beach, with only sound as a guide. The adult plover would “peep!” and the chicks would move in its direction. Then, another somewhat different “peep!” and the chicks would find a small divot in the sand and lie down.
With the sort of precision you would see in a practice drill for the U.S. Marine Corps, the adult plovers were teaching their chicks how best to survive in the ever-treacherous beach environment. Camouflage is the best protection for a plover chick before it learns to fly (about 30 days after hatch), so it is important they learn how to move quickly, sense danger, and hunker down when necessary.
Like many wildlife species we take for granted on the East End, these animals are smart. Their natural instinct and innate communication skills are a real wonder if you take the time to get outside and observe them. For instance, Juliana told me about a plover family she observed one hot day this summer at in Southold.
Four one-day-old chicks were investigating the beach on their own and had heretofore stayed clear of some nearby sleeping beachgoers. After a while, two little chicks snuck right up and began drinking condensation from one snoozer’s water glass, then pecking lightly on her leg as if to say, “I thought you were a human! Why are you acting like a rock?”
You might be wondering at this point, “When can I get a look at one of these insanely cute plover chicks?” The best time to see the chicks is late June and throughout July, but you can still spot a few roaming the beach and learning to fly through August.
Plovers typically arrive on the East End around the same time as the osprey (mid-March). They make a nest by scraping away sand and often line the area with shells and pebbles. In May and June, plovers lay one egg every other day in the attempt to create a complete “clutch” of four eggs. If the nest is flooded by a high tide or destroyed by a wayward beach driver, the birds can re-nest, but will likely only lay two to three more eggs. Incubation takes just 25-31 days, so you could see chicks as early as June 1.
People who live on the East End and enjoy the beach in summertime have a love-hate relationship with piping plovers. They are the type of precious macro-fauna that many live to adore, but others view their presence as an unnecessary invasion of the beach. I personally don’t see what all the fuss and piping plover recipes (you know what I mean...) are about. The birds only ask for a small portion of the beaches each summer, and they remind us of the need to conserve.
String fencing to mark off bird nesting areas not only protects valuable habitat, but it reminds us that our environment is community resource — to be shared and enjoyed by both humans and wildlife. Most people come to the East End because they love the fresh air, the beautiful clean waters, and spending time outdoors. Let’s do our best to protect the nature of the place we love, the nature that makes this place so special.
To learn more about Group for the East End’s environmental advocacy and education programs, please visit www.GroupfortheEastEnd.org.