This image seems eerily familiar (if not exactly) to that of scenes found in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, “The Birds,” yet you’ll find this everyday occurrence right here at Assateague National Seashore.
Today, I was left in the dust as my fellow water quality comrades went off to Chincoteague NWR to gather some water samples in the bay. They were to have a nice day out on the water, collecting samples and checking out some islands that contained a population of brown pelicans. Since the boat could only hold 4 people, I was assigned a day of “cross-training” and was given the opportunity to work with the plover crew.
A male piping plover.
Since the piping plover is threatened, an enormous amount of management, research, and planning goes into ensuring that these birdies survive and reproduce successfully. To assure their continued existence, the park has devised a number of initiatives that will protect and conserve the species. For starters, they have constructed nest “exclosures,” which are rectangular fences built around a plover nest to ensure that predators cannot access the eggs or the newborn hatchlings. They have also hired an entire crew of field technicians to rove the beach everyday, searching for new and old nests, plovers, and chicks. Once this information is acquired, nests can be mapped with GIS and GPS so that they then can be easily found and checked every day for new eggs and chicks. As the plovers and chicks are checked each day, biologists can get a better idea of nest, hatching, and fledging success, and whether plover numbers are increasing or declining (or staying the same).
Today, I went out with one of the “plover girls” to check nests for eggs, and to make sure sites that had chicks (and their parents) still had them. Each site I’d take out my binoculars and scour the shoreline and dunes for little cotton ball-sized critters scurrying across the sand. If I couldn’t see anything with the binocs, I would have to use a spotting scope attached to a tripod to get a better look. Unfortunately, many of these sites contained literal colonies of least terns, which were also nesting in the area. (Least terns are the smallest, and probably cutest, of all the tern species.)
Problem is, least terns, pardon my French, are bitches. Little did I know these adorable, bite-sized flying beasts will practically knock you down if you dare enter their nesting area. Each time I would try to get closer to an area where I thought there might be a plover, I was harassed and beleaguered by terns. I swear they wanted to eat me.
I would walk out onto the dune and start to set up my tripod only to then whip it up in a flash to use as a swatter for fear of my own life. Although I probably looked like a fool (probably? Uh, yeah, most definitely) I will unashamedly admit that I would take the tripod and swing it around to scare them off (unsuccessfully, might I add).
Beezlebub the demon: aka the Least tern.
In addition to all of these admirable qualities, these nasty, squawking creatures shot torpedos of shit with a vehemence unlike no other. And, although I found bird crap on my pants, arms, hands, chest, collar, shoes, and shirt – as if the terns paid no particular attention to what area they directed their feces, just as long as they made a direct hit - they seemed to take a particular fancy to shooting their excrement straight at my head and face. Fortunately, I was protected by a rather enlarged floppy hat that my boss had given me earlier that morning (he neglected to tell me why exactly I would need such a particular piece of clothing).
A baby least tern: much cuter, and much more friendlier.
On the bright side, I did see a plethora of very cute bird babies today. (And, I really enjoyed the plover work.) I saw a ton of American oystercatchers, which are of a much more amiable disposition and merely scamper away if you happen to be too close to their nest. I saw one set of parents with their 3 babies, which were probably a few weeks old, but still fluffy and undeniably adorable. I also saw tern chicks about the size of my thumb – and very docile and vulnerable, unlike their demon parents. Last but not least, I saw plover chicks - which, according to my boss, resemble cotton balls that have 2 toothpicks attached to them. They are definitely tiny, but very fuzzy and cute.
An adult oystercatcher.
I also got to collect beautiful shells, enjoy the relaxing lull of waves crashing on the shore, and got tan to boot. Not a bad day at the office.
Disclaimer: I apologize for the use of profanity in the above blog post. Although more polite words are more appropriate, the use of curse words seemed entirely necessary in this post to guarantee comic relief.