Both species are protected in Massachusetts and the Piping Plover is listed as threatened at the federal level. In addition to nesting on the sandy beaches of the East Coast, both birds also nest along sand bars and beaches of the major rivers and great lakes. And these interior population of both birds are listed as endangered. So how did these birds get into such dire straits? Both species are beautiful and their feathers were highly prized in the 19th century as fashion accessories in lady's hats. So we killed them, and lots of them. In Massachusetts, the Least Terns bottomed out at only 250 pairs at the turn of the 20 century. After this both birds ran into the same trouble, their breeding habitat on sandy beaches is also highly prized for development and recreational use. A trip to the beach is the quintessential summer vacation regardless of whether it is a day trip, hotel, or vacation house. This all led to the 1980's when the Piping Plovers hit a low of only 800 breeding pairs for the Atlantic Coast.
|Least Tern Chick and Adult|
My first encounter with a Piping Plover was actually recounted in this blog, where I found a couple early in the season after they had just migrated. Though Least Tern are often found at Belle Isle Marsh, I've always thought they were much more fun to watch than the Common Terns. So when Michael suggesting these two species as photography subjects I was thrilled.
|Sunrise over the Atlantic|
In the back of my mind I kept thinking about whether or not my actions were disturbing the birds, or not. Because even before the photography, we wanted to make sure that we didn't cause harm or distress to the birds. One thing I was amazed about was how small and aggressive Least Terns can be. I've always seen them at a distance on their hunting grounds, not near a nesting location. Even when we were walking well away form the roped-off areas with the chicks and nests, they would dive-bomb our heads (I never knew they had partially webbed feet before!). But as soon as we would lay down, they stopped being alarmed and ignored us instead. Adults would even land just a few yards away. Later we saw one of the researchers checking on nests in the roped off area, he was carrying a tall pole to prevent the terns from attacking him. Apparently they attack the tallest point (e.g. you head or pole) and are quite able to draw blood if they think you are too close. But in addition to our own skin, it was important to prevent the parents from being so stressed that they abandon their nest or chicks.
I had a blast crawling around in the sand and having a front row seat to the lives of the Piping Plovers and Least Terns. Add to that the challenge of trying to capture all that beauty in the single press of the shutter definitely made it lots of fun, though may have made me less aware of the moment itself focusing on the camera so much.
|Piping Plover Chick|
|Piping Plover Chick|
After first focusing on the plovers, we turned our attention to the terns. Least Tern chicks share the camouflage against the sand as a defense mechanism. I even saw a couple of chicks "flop" onto their chins and they immediately disappeared against the sand, just another wind swept mound of sand. Once or twice an adult would give a warning note and the chicks would scamper as fast as they could back up the beach towards the nests. Unlike the plovers, the Least Terns need to actively feed their chicks, as they won't be able to fish until they can fly. So several times we witnessed adults flying in with small fish that were passed off to the chicks, who swallowed them whole, even when the fish was the same length as the chick!
|Least Tern Feeding a Chick|
As the sun rose in the sky making the light harsher, more people began to appear at the beach, though fortunately those walking near the plovers gave the families a wide birth, careful not to disturb them. Eventually, we decided to call it a day around 9am, after more than 4 wonderful hours photographing and watching the birds. In reflection, when birding I often hunt around for more species, but on this day, the goal was to capture a few moments from the lives of the Piping Plovers and Least Terns. So I spent more time with them than I ever would have birding, not to mention laying down on the sand, to see the world from their perspective. And I have some fun photographs to help remember the day.
|Area of beach with nesting Piping Plovers and Least Terns|