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Birds vs. humans: Balancing needs

Nests of protected terns, plovers threatened by increased beach use

Adult plovers have a black ring around their necks and a black band on the foreheads. Adult plovers have a black ring around their necks and a black band on the foreheads. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Molly A.K. Connors
Globe Correspondent / July 4, 2010

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Humans aren’t the only ones who like to have a good time at The Spit. Piping plovers and least terns, which are protected species, often nest out there, said Sue MacCallum, a sanctuary director with the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Between 18 and 25 pairs of piping plovers, which usually have four chicks each, will nest between the Cape Cod Canal and Scituate each year, MacCallum said, and three to five pairs will usually nest at The Spit between late March and the end of August.

Audubon has already found four pairs this summer, she said. One pair has successfully hatched its eggs, and another couple, “confused’’ after the loss of their own nest, took over incubation duties for a nearby nest of least terns.

The most recent surveys show fewer than 2,000 pairs on the entire East Coast, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Since the population has declined because beaches have become so developed, The Spit’s relative isolation and pristine, sandy dunes are exactly what the birds are looking for when they migrate north to start a family each year.

“Two hundred years ago, there weren’t as many beach houses, people didn’t go to the beach for the day,’’ MacCallum said.

Adult plovers have yellow-orange legs, a black ring around the base of their necks, and a black band across their foreheads, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Their chicks are often compared to cotton balls on toothpicks.

Both are the color of the sand, which is good camouflage against predators, but makes them even more vulnerable to humans. MacCallum described plover nests like a “little hollow in the sand.’’

“Even if you’re very conscientious, they’re really hard to see, and it’s really easy to step on them,’’ MacCallum said.

Protecting the spot has been difficult, officials said. Merely cordoning off the area has proven a challenge for Mass Audubon, which manages and monitors the area. Unleashed dogs, yielding to predatory instincts, can eat or maim the eggs or birds before an owner can intervene, conservationists said. But humans are of equal concern, officials say.

“People will tear up the fence and use it for fire,’’ said Selectman Rick Murray, who lives near the area.

Because the area has no facilities, people tend to use the fenced-off piping plover habitat as a bathroom, officials said. “There have been people with 30-packs of beer, and nature takes its course, and it’s over the piping plovers and into the sand dunes,’’ Murray explained.

Piping plovers have been listed as a “threatened’’ species since 1986 because they are “likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.’’ But they have vulnerable neighbors, the least terns — grey, black, and white birds that also nest there and have been listed as a species of special concern by the state Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

The key at The Spit, MacCallum said, is balancing the needs of birds and humans alike.

“It’s a beautiful area with a beautiful beach, which makes it great for the plovers, but also makes it great for the beachgoers,’’ MacCallum said.

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