Piping plovers are tiny creatures, but on Chappaquiddick (a.k.a. Chappy), they can stop a two-ton truck in its tracks.
For the next two months, piping plovers, which have been classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act since 1986, will be nesting, breeding, and skittering across Chappy beaches, which means detours aplenty for vehicles with an oversand permit.
“In a nutshell, we have a lot of birds, although they’ve had as tough a time with the spring weather as we have,” Chris Kennedy, The Trustees of the Reservations Martha’s Vineyard superintendent, told The Martha’s Vineyard Times. “It’s still a healthy population, so far.”
Nineteen pairs of piping plovers and 12 nesting pairs have been counted between Norton Point and the Gut, Mr. Kennedy said. “Four of them have chicks, and there are several more due to hatch very soon.”
The situation is a highly fluid one. Last Friday, only the beaches from the Cape Poge Elbow to the Gut were closed to traffic, along with a short stretch north past the Jetties and a small portion of Norton Point Beach. North of the Dike Bridge was open as far as the lighthouse, leaving 4-wheelers considerable room to roam.
But over the weekend, spotters found some new plover nests on the inland road, and as of Monday, no vehicle traffic is permitted anywhere north of the Dike Bridge. “This was not totally unexpected, but it’s surprising how fast it happened,” Mr. Kennedy said. “We’ve got a crew of shorebird monitors as well as rangers; they’re out there every single day. They’re keeping a very close eye on things. Beach closures can happen quickly, and likewise, so can the reopenings.”
South of the Dike Bridge, a short stretch of Leland Beach is closed, but drivers can bypass it on the bayside road.
“We’ve got a pair of plovers that just hatched opposite Dike Bridge at the top end of Leland Beach,” he said. “We’re keeping an eye on them to see where they end up. This pair has been coming back for the past three or four years in that same spot. Generally they either head south, which could close more of Leland, or they may go northward, as they’ve done in the past. As I told many of the fishermen over the weekend, about the only thing you can do is wait and see what these birds do.”
Mr. Kennedy said he was optimistic that the bayside road south of the Dike Bridge would stay open all summer. “The state has determined that the bayside road does not contain habitat suitable for feeding,” he said. “In over 30 years, I’ve never seen birds nest there. People will still be able to access the rest of Leland Beach, and they can park and walk around the corner to Wasque.”
A small section of beach at Wasque Point is closed to vehicles due to erosion, not the diminutive birds, but there is a trail for pedestrians.
The nesting period lasts until the chicks have fledged, which takes six to eight weeks. During that time, according to Massachusetts state law, there can be no vehicle activity within 100 yards of the closest piping plover nest or chick. Plovers don’t like to nest close to one another, so a few nests can take up a lot of beach.
“The law doesn’t say ‘100 yards from the nest,’ it’s ‘100 yards from the closest chick,’ so as fledglings wander further from the nest, it’s possible we may need to close more beach,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Historically, plover closures have a considerable impact on Norton Point Beach, the popular barrier beach that separates Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. The two-mile-long stretch of sand has become hugely popular in recent years — on summer weekends it’s one big beach party, with SUVs and pickup trucks as far as the eye can see. But last summer, just four-tenths of a mile of the beach was open on Fourth of July weekend, due to the nesting shorebirds. Only 120 vehicles were allowed on the beach on the Sunday of the big holiday weekend, and trustees closed Norton Point to vehicles by 9:15 am, leaving many disappointed 4-wheeling holidaymakers.
“I’m cautiously optimistic more of Norton Point will be open this summer,” Mr. Kennedy said. “My advice for people is to take advantage of the situation right now. For the most part, that area is free of restrictions. That could change very soon.”
Areas on Chappy closed to vehicle traffic are shown on the trustees’ Facebook page, and will be updated as conditions change. Oversand permit holders can also call 508-627-8390, for the latest in beach closures/openings.
“You can still walk on all the Chappy beaches,” Mr. Kennedy said.