Can the Plover Save New York?

Unexpected lessons from an endangered shorebird.

Piping plover photographed at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, March 28, 2010.
A piping plover at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, N.J., in 2010

Photo courtesy of Don Freiday/USFWS/Flickr

Walking the Long Island, N.Y., beach one afternoon in mid-March, I watched two birds race from the water’s edge. Snow had fallen during the weekend, and even my wife, a dedicated Vermonter, turned her back on the Atlantic wind, heading for shelter. But these avian puffs seemed unfazed by the hard haze of sand blowing off the shore. As I approached, they flurried away, hit the icy snow, and tried to disguise themselves in the tattered remnants of the strand.

“No pain, no death is more terrible to a wild creature than its fear of man,” J. A. Baker wrote in his classic, The Peregrine. How often is our first sighting of an animal as it flees? A hawk tears itself from a leafless tree. A wood frog backs into an ephemeral pond with an alarmed “yikes!” At the approach of a boat, a right whale suddenly remembers it’s left something on the horizon. A glass lizard is so eager to get off the trail I’ve taken on a prairie in Florida that, when I reach down to examine it, it leaves a flesh-colored tail wiggling in my hand. Only the live oaks, rooted, remain.

“We are the killers,” Baker wrote. “We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.”

Looking as if they had been molded of sand and feathers, the pair of piping plovers kept up a worried pace, flitting upslope then back to the intertidal. The barrier beach I was walking was an island the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes as “unconsolidated sand.” This hadn’t stopped builders from throwing up beach clubs, condominiums, boardwalks, summer bungalows, and million-dollar homes. On the Atlantic coast, these plovers are perhaps the most newsworthy of seaside birds, being among the most rare. They are counted by twos every year: the number of breeding pairs of the threatened species on barrier islands, ocean fronts, bays, and sand bars from North Carolina to Atlantic Canada. In the 1980s, when they were first protected by the Endangered Species Act, plovers were down to 722 pairs. Since then, their numbers have more than doubled. But when plovers fly into town to nest, some coastal residents resent them. Because plovers are both skittish and endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imposes restrictions on beach use wherever they make landfall.

Dead horseshoe crabs littered the sand, like lost helmets from a failed invasion. Offshore, a dragger trawled for fish. At the sea edge, groins—huge stone structures intended to stop the loss of sand—lined up in the water like stranded black whales. The structures only hasten the demise of the island, gathering sand on the updrift side, eroding the land downstream of the longshore currents. Many of the beach’s natural contours, the dunes and beach grasses, had been flattened up to the boardwalk.

 * * *

Hurricane Sandy passed through this area after my icy walk last year, and I revisited it a few weeks after the storm. My mother had evacuated her home on Atlantic Beach, then moved back to deal with a flooded basement and the worries of living close to the shore. I walked down to the beach, which had lost much of the finer sand. To the east, the houses were intact; the lawns still late-autumn green. To the west, workers were emptying homes by the pailful. They piled wet sand on the beach and hoisted rugs, furniture, Sheetrock, and keepsakes onto what was left of patios.

A car is buried in sand that was washed in from Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012 in Long Beach Island, New Jersey.
A car is buried in sand that was washed in from Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 31, 2012, in Long Beach Island, N.J.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

What had made the difference? To the east was a dune system, about 10 feet high, covered with beach grass and a few young pines: a barrier to the storm surge. To the west, the beach resembled a parking lot, graded and regraded over the years, an easy path for any storm with a decent amount of power.

Workers were moving sand and plugging it with beach grass in the area that had been protected from the storm. The winter shorebirds were back on the coast, preoccupied as ever, racing toward the ocean for a quick meal, chased back by the waves. Several Brant geese flew overhead. At the same time, up the beach, some coastal residents were doing what they’ve always done: grading the strand and carelessly encroaching on the dunes. Homeowners who paid for an ocean view were starting to groom their welcome mats for the next storm. As beach geologist Orrin Pilkey once said, “If you can see the ocean, the ocean can see you.”

Some coastal residents resent the restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act to protect threatened shorebirds. But others suspect that piping plovers can help us preserve our shorefront lifestyle—that the land we protect for them can serve as a barrier when the storms come through, protecting human property. It’s a pleasing notion. The truth, however, is more complicated than that.

* * *

“Piping plovers are a hindrance or a bother,” Steve Papa told me a couple of years ago. He is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in charge of piping plover recovery in the area. We were standing on Westhampton Island, a barrier beach on Long Island’s South Shore. Orange flagging tied to thin nylon lines twisted in the sea breeze behind him, marking off areas protected for the plover. “The rhetoric is that the beach has been ‘quarantined.’ ” Despite attempts to save the dunes and the plovers’ nests, though, several homes had gotten permission to lay paths through the beach grass. “We must have the highest handicapped population in the country,” Papa said dryly. “Everybody has to have direct access.”

Habitat destruction is the top cause of bird extinctions across the world. Felis catus comes in second. “Feral cats are a beach manager’s nightmare,” Papa said. There are more than 50 million house cats trying to make a living in the wild in the United States, half a million on Long Island alone.

New York was probably once home to thousands of breeding pairs of piping plovers, before beaches were groomed and off-road vehicles, cats, and foxes destroyed nests. Before protection, only a few seemed to have noticed the bird. Conservationist T. Gilbert Pearson was one, writing in his 1917 Birds of America, “Somehow the sea-beach hardly seems fully genuine without it.” They were rare, of course, but they also had a stunning ability to camouflage themselves in the sand, like feathers caught in the drift. For the past few decades, everyone on Westhampton Island has known about the birds.

In November 1992, a four-day storm breached this barrier island, splitting it and leaving some homes cut off from the mainland. The beach “repair,” costing more than $47 million, was the most expensive in New York’s history at the time.

The people in charge of beach renourishment used plovers to justify the dredging and dumping of new sand, claiming it would help restore shorebird habitat. “The trouble is,” Papa told me, “plovers kind of like what the Corps of Engineers is trying to prevent.” Plovers depend on beach breaks, on unshackled land with sparse vegetation before predators—raccoons, foxes, opossums, rats, and cats, often subsidized with pet food by local residents—move in from the mainland. “The birds would love the freedom of a dynamic barrier beach, not one hemmed in by dredges and groins,” Papa said.

Plovers know the risks of a life on the edge of a maelstrom. In spring, facing the wind, their feathers flat against their breasts, they’re almost invisible. Their nests, called scrapes, are saucer-like depressions lined with a few shells, perhaps some seaside pebbles. Like their sand-colored eggs, the nests are so well hidden, a person out for a walk, his eyes on the horizon, can destroy one with a distracted step. In the years that followed the 1992 storm, the number of plover nests around Westhampton soared, then started to decline in the 2000s.

Nesting Piping Plover, August 24, 2010.
A nesting piping plover in 2010

Photo courtesy of Bill Byrne/Flickr

“Perhaps the best service that the plovers can provide,” Papa told me, “is to keep construction off the beach strand.” He pointed to a nest set among beach grass, the stalks rubbing shallow dents in the sand. The scrapes were hardly more conspicuous than those wind-drawn circles: a sand dip with a couple of black-flecked eggs. Beyond the nests, the juiced-up houses on 75-by-100-foot lots looked far more permanent. Yet in the 1970s and ’80s, many houses had disappeared into the sea.

* * *

Superstorm Sandy approached New York City from the southeast with 80 mph winds and a 12-foot surge. The Atlantic met Jamaica Bay across the Rockaway Peninsula—in a process known as overwash—inundating Rockaway Point Boulevard, the main access road to the town of Breezy Point, N.Y. Seawater made its way into the electrical systems of a home on Ocean Avenue, sparking a fire. Embers blew from house to house, and 12-foot floodwaters prevented the arrival of the fire department. One hundred twenty-five homes burned. Six months later, many were just foundations, others still boarded up.

A woman walks through the remains of destroyed homes on Dec. 4, 2012, in Breezy Point, N.Y. Breezy Point lost more than 100 homes in a fast-moving fire during Superstorm Sandy.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“What everyone has been waiting for has finally happened,” said Dave Taft, coordinator of the Jamaica Bay unit of Gateway National Recreation Area, told me when I visited Breezy Point this summer. “It really is sad to see people’s lives turned upside down like that,” he said. He moved inland long ago, unwilling to put his wife and daughter through the heartbreak. Overwash, he observed, was part of the barrier island ecosystem.

Behind him, a piping plover lifted from the sands in a butterfly flight over what was left of the dunes, an aerobat in nuptial plumage, with the black collar typical of a breeding male. This was the type of habitat—free of vegetation and predators—that the plovers adored. The bird twittered, pipe-pipe-pipe, as it hit the top of the loop and landed back in the sand.

“There really isn’t a lot of compromise to be made about plovers,” Taft said. A chick is all legs and 1 inch long; a deep rut in the sand can be a canyon, a tire deadly. After the plovers were listed in 1986, the park service prohibited ATVs and dogs from protected beaches. Many residents were up in arms. Taft described the early meetings as “chair-throwing sessions.” Bumper stickers appeared: “Piping Plovers Taste Like Chicken.” Above him, a least tern, a state threatened species, all wings with a sharp yellow bill, looked ready to swoop down on us. In recent years, Taft noted that things had improved. We approached a line of metal posts connected by string marked with yellow flagging. Tony Luscombe, a biological technician who monitors the birds through the nesting season, had just erected the annual fencing for the plovers. Luscombe hails from South Dakota, where farmers, he told me, judge one another’s property by their fences. His was straight, perfect, and largely symbolic. Last year, several plover eggs were stolen from two nests. The culprit, who cut the protective nets and left behind a single set of human footprints, was never found.

Later that day, I went for a run along Atlantic Beach, a few miles east of Breezy Point. There were three plovers near the battered boardwalk, foraging in the sand, like robins hopping on a lawn. Then came a pleasing series of peeps. A line of tiny plover prints tattooed the sand around a scrape—and ominously close, the paw prints of a feral cat. Mindful of a comment Luscombe had made about the disturbance caused by running near plovers, I walked back to my mother’s condo and sent an email to the conservation folks at Breezy Point. My mother told me that an exclusion area was set up a few days after I returned to Vermont. I had, if only for the moment, rid the stink of death, torn away the frost. Within a few weeks, though, the scrape was abandoned; perhaps there were too many people around or a predator had taken the birds.

The superstorm reminded all of us that, like it or not, barrier islands are dynamic systems. Rather than try to anchor the beach—with sea walls, groins, and sand replenishment—at enormous personal and taxpayer cost, we could follow the way of the plover. These birds—threatened by overdevelopment and feral cats, foxes, and crows—remind us of the way humans used to face the ocean: as nomads, with a light footprint. Native Americans occupied barrier islands in the summer, moving back to the mainland when the winter storms arrived. In Africa and South America, as Pilkey has noted, people build mobile homes, structures that can be easily moved to avoid catastrophe, along the shore to avoid malarial mosquitoes.

Conservationists and landowners should work together to preserve the coastline for shorebirds and other wildlife as well as houses. It can start with more stringent building codes and a retreat from the high-risk overwash zones, but it can’t end there. Along the bays and estuaries, salt marshes absorb storm surges. Oyster reefs are natural breakwaters, protecting shorelines. All of these habitats, our natural infrastructure, provide other services, including nurseries for fish, carbon sequestration, and the conservation of wildlife, as well as protecting property.

And we’ll need to rethink the nation’s insurance policy. “The problem is not the barrier beach,” Taft said out in the Rockaways, “it’s the $17-million house sitting on the shoreline. If you’re wealthy enough or crazy enough to keep rebuilding on the shoreline after Katrina or Sandy, or any number of pre-Sandy flooding disasters, that’s your decision. Just leave my tax dollars out of it.” Superstorm Sandy damaged or destroyed 650,000 houses and cost an estimated $65 billion in lost business. Soon after the storm, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo initiated an effort to buy owners out of their homes in an effort to retreat from risky coastal areas. It was a good idea, but there seemed to be few takers the following summer. Several of the people I spoke to suggested that perhaps a few more homes would be elevated or built on stilts. But as Jim Fraser, a wildlife professor at Virginia Tech told me, this is a temporary solution: “Eventually they are going to go in the drink.”

By continuing to subsidize coastal development—through programs like the National Flood Insurance Program, which provide artificially low rates—we could bring on a national crisis. Instead, innovative ecological tax reform can incentivize the good things, like oyster-reef restoration, and tax the bad, such as careless waterfront development. Public programs to encourage the integration of development and conservation are approaches that make economic and ecological sense. By investing in natural capital, there’s a chance that folks in New York and New Jersey can protect the shore and their homes (at least those that aren’t on the frontline) by restoring wetlands that act as natural buffers to flooding. Such an approach can also help restore wildlife: the piping plovers, least terns, oysters, quahog clams, and seabeach amaranth.

There are now approximately 318 nesting pairs of piping plovers in New York. In 2011, Papa and his colleagues tracked 1,762 mating plovers along the Atlantic Coast, almost 2½ times the numbers of the 1980s. The goal is 2,000. If Papa, Luscombe, and others can help the birds reach that number, they could save themselves out of a job.

Fraser, who has been working on plovers since they were first listed, warns that plovers will probably never be free of human intervention, as long as we keep modifying the shoreline. “Piping plovers really are a boom-and-bust species,” he said. Plover populations tripled after the hurricane of ’38 cut new inlets through Westhampton Island. Fraser is hoping to see a similar response after Sandy. “But even in the absence of all the crazy things that we do, as the habitat revegetates and predators move in … the population drops down. And then another storm happens someplace else.” And the cycle starts all over again.

The choice is clear: We can continue on the course of denial and heartbreak that we’ve followed in recent decades, building on unstable islands, fortifying shorelines with sea walls that will not restrain storm surges. Or we can think on our feet, like the plover.