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Terns and piping plovers under threat

Posted by Lisa Crowley  July 1, 2009 08:47 AM

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By L.E. Crowley
Town Correspondent

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High winds and a storm last week swept away several piping plover and tern nests, killing any unborn chicks that were incubating in their egg shells.

And now. Conservation Commission member Anthony Jones (above) fears another storm—a human one—could wipe out any remaining eggs and nests when Fourth of July boaters and frolickers head to Scituate’s “spit” for seclusion and the hidden beach’s picturesque setting.

“They don’t know they’re supposed to nest behind the ropes,” Jones said as he picked up a rock that looked much like the eggs laid by piping plovers and terns.

Jones is strongly urging boaters and beachgoers to stay off the dunes and not cross the ropes set up around the dunes, where the plovers and terns make their nests—at least those that remain since last week’s storm.

“I know of two that we lost,” Jones said. “Now I’m worried about the Fourth of July,” he said.

For two decades, Scituate residents have joined hundreds of professional and amateur environmentalists from Duxbury Beach to Plymouth Beach and along the Atlantic Coast who have worked to save the two coastal bird species from extinction.

Every year, Jones said, he and other volunteers have trekked out onto the wooden walkway through the marshes and have marched to the spit to replace signs, posts, wire and plastic rope that warn visitors to stay off the dunes and breeding areas.

While most people respect the flimsy barrier, Jones said, not everyone does.

Footprints in the sand show people have crossed the boundaries, foraying to the edge of the dunes and possibly stomping on an egg that can look remarkably like the stones and pebbles strewn along the beach.

If someone accidentally steps on a nest that is not between the makeshift fence and the dune because the birds have laid eggs outside the boundary, Jones shrugs and says so be it, although he slowly walks the beach trying to avoid nests and eggs.

What bothers him is when people knowingly cross the fence and jeopardize the tenuous hold on life for the terns and plovers. “The birds don’t know there is a boundary, but people certainly do,” Jones said.

More than 20 years ago, following the Endangered Species Act of 1986, organizations like Mass Audubon and state and local officials began a program to save terns and plovers, whose populations had drastically declined. The plover is a threatened species under state law and the tern is an endangered species and is protected under federal law.

In a 2006 report from Mass Audubon, piping plover pairs in Massachusetts have doubled from just over 200 in 1986 to more than 400 in 2006. In 2002, breeding pairs topped 500, but have declined since then.

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