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Plover patrol

Volunteers work to keep sands of wildlife refuge safe for tiny, endangered shorebirds

PLUM ISLAND -- This is not tough duty.

Just after 8 a.m. on a warm Saturday in June, I am barefoot in the sand on the southeastern tip of Plum Island, enjoying an iced coffee and watching the sun glitter on the gentle ocean swells. Cormorants fly overhead toward Rockport. It's the beginning of my four-hour shift as a volunteer plover warden at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

Half an hour later, of course, I am grunting and sweating and shredding my palms as I drag a rope weighted with four wet-sand-clogged cinder blocks across 50 yards of beach, returning the boundary line of the beach's forbidden zone to its pre-high-tide position.

As regular visitors know, the vast majority of the wildlife refuge's beach is closed from spring through mid summer to protect nesting grounds of the piping plover, a threatened species.

The small, well-camouflaged shorebird lay s its eggs in a nest that's no more than a shallow depression in the sand and works the tidal zone for food.

"We're a wildlife refuge, and wildlife comes first," said Jean Adams, an outdoor recreation planner for the U S Fish & Wildlife Service who runs the warden program. "We're not here to be a public beach for the people. It's a privilege that they can use the beach when it's open, because there are many refuges out there that don't allow people at all."

Plover wardens are the unloved hall monitors of the beach.

"They are the ones that let us know if there's anyone on the closed beach, and they're the ones who explain to people why the beach is closed," said Adams. "They're basically a talking sign, because a lot of people don't read signs or ignore the signs."

Piping plover populations have shrunk dramatically in recent decades, primarily due to habitat loss as coastal areas are developed, Adams said. But all it takes is an errant step by a person to put a bird off breeding, perhaps permanently. Recent surveys place the Atlantic population of piping plovers at fewer than 1,400 pairs, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service.

"There's a lot of places for people, there's not a lot of places for wildlife," said Adams. "Habitat destruction is the number-one reason why species are disappear ing, and if we can save little pieces and pockets, we're going to do that."

Seven nesting sites have been identified on the refuge, of which five actually had eggs this year.

"The public will say, 'You close the beach for six lousy birds, or four lousy birds?' It's that whole mentality that everything is for humans," she said. "And I tell the plover wardens, you tell them it's because there are only six birds that we close the beach. If we had 2,006 birds, maybe we wouldn't have an issue."

Other nests are on the adjacent Sandy Point State Reservation beach and the town beaches at the north end of the island. But the refuge is the only place where the piping plovers are truly left alone. Small areas of the beach are left open for beachgoers and fishermen at either end of the refuge, with the 6 or so miles of sand in between devoid of humans except for the occasional biologist.

Here at the south end of the refuge, a small fence festooned with "Beach Closed" signs runs down the sand until it gives way to a rope line of orange floats held in place by the cinder blocks. The warden's job is to reinforce the line with talk, to keep people from walking where they might step on a nest or even one of the skittering plovers.

A few dozen prospective wardens turn out for orientation in March, but only a fraction actually join the crew. Those who do come to see it as a mission, and some have been doing it year after year since beach closures started in 1991.

"It's a way of giving back," said volunteer Steve Mangion, an island resident who arrived on the beach with a shovel to relocate the cinder blocks, even though he wasn't scheduled to work a shift until the afternoon.

Those who come to the preserve to enjoy nature are supportive.

"I think the closure is necessary," said a regular visitor, June Gallagher of Marlborough. "There are plenty of other public beaches for people to go to. It's a refuge. And it's just so beautiful."

Wardens are outfitted with a packet of plover information along with a two-way radio and a vest. The radio and the official-looking logo on the vest are intended in part to give the volunteers a little authority, for not everyone is as supportive as Gallagher.

"A disgruntled diver told me the next piping plover he sees is going on his plate," Janet Egan of North Andover wrote June 16 on her Plover Warden Diaries blog, "I told him there's not enough meat on them for a meal."

While there have been harsh words, no one remembers a plover warden getting punched. More common are the visitors who simply ignore the warden and march on down the beach, leading to a radio call to the gatehouse and a visit from the refuge police. Violators can get a $100 ticket.

But nature-lovers can be a problem too. One refuge employee, not Adams, noted wryly that many seem to confuse their Audubon or Sierra Club membership cards with get-out-of-jail-free cards.

No one challenges my authority during my Saturday morning on the beach. The closest I get to a confrontation is a group of four wet-suited surfers who send their leader over to find out the rules.

"Can we go over there?"

"The beach is closed."

"What if we don't touch the sand?" he says.

Technically they would be within their rights, if they actually managed it. But there are more people now, fishermen and families with kids, floats, and beach toys. All of them, at least in my mind, eyeing the vast, beautiful, open beach on the other side of the rope.

"It would be great if you stayed on this side of the floats," I say.

The surfer can't suppress an eye roll, but he nods curtly and jogs back to give his group the bad news.

For information on becoming a plover warden, call Jean Adams at 978-465-5754, ext. 208.