Learning to Share

Least terns with chicks, by Erin Gettler

Least terns with chicks, by Erin Gettler

I live very close to a Long Island beach that is popular with both people and wildlife. For most of the winter, the wildlife have the advantage, and the only people who visit go for the wildlife, not the beach itself. Come summer, though, both people and wildlife compete for real estate. Courtesy of state agencies and laws that protect them, the wildlife win. Mostly.

Federally endangered piping plovers, and state-threatened coastal least terns use the beach to nest. It’s the same exact space that people prefer, so the relevant agencies rope off what they hope will be the right location and amount of space for the birds, leaving what they hope will be enough space for people to enjoy the sunshine and waves during the weeks the birds need to court, incubate, raise and fledge their young. Here, as in many other similarly contested locations, it’s a razor-thin trade-off.

A least tern chick at a protected nesting site on Long Island, by Erin Gettler.

A least tern chick at a protected nesting site on Long Island, by Erin Gettler.

I visited the nesting colony of least terns the other night, following up on rumors I’d heard that another nearby colony had failed due to predation. A pair of beach visitors followed me out of the parking lot, and the wind carried their conversation to me.

“What’s all this fencing?”
“It’s for the piping plovers. I don’t know why they need so much room, but they take up the whole beach, all summer long.”

“Oh, wow. All this for some birds? That IS a whole lot of beach. Where are the people supposed to go?”

Least terns at a protected nesting site on Long Island, by Erin Gettler

Least terns at a protected nesting site on Long Island, by Erin Gettler

Something inside me seized up like stage fright. I know how these conversations go. I know how some people feel. I’ve seen the bumper stickers. But I didn’t stop to explain. What’s the use? I thought. As long as the agencies keep fencing off the beach, the birds will be ok…

It is a heck of a lot of beach, though. I’ll give them that.

It’s hard for me as a bird lover and conservationist to step outside that uniform and try to see things from the other side. I don’t always get why it’s so hard to share a little scrap of the world with the critters who were here ages before us, the critters who depend on the space we allow on our margins.

Least tern with two-day-old chick, by Dan Pancamo via Wikimedia Commons

Least tern with two-day-old chick, by Dan Pancamo via Wikimedia Commons

But on the other hand, I don’t know that we’re doing such a good job explaining the why either.

Once I got to the stretch of beach occupied by the tern colony, it took a few minutes to sort out the situation through my binoculars, for my eyes to stop trying to make gravel into tern chicks. Is that one? No, a rock. No, gravel patch. Hey I saw that bit move. There. Yes, there they were.

And then, it seemed they were everywhere, tiny cottonballs on legs too little to go steadily over the terrain, bitty flappy featherless wings, little chick faces upturned toward their parents’ yellow bills. The chicks wear camouflage because they’re so vulnerable, but they stumbled and scurried fearlessly over the sand, chasing their parents, digging out little holes to sit in, exploring their world, which must seem so enormous to them. For us, it’s just a few hundred yards of beach.

Piping plover with chick, by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Wikimedia Commons

Piping plover with chick, by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Wikimedia Commons

When I lowered my binoculars, the chicks disappeared.

Tern chicks and piping plover chicks are invisible on purpose. Some of us find them because we’re looking for them, but many people don’t ever get to see why they are sharing the beach with terns and plovers. And let’s face it, adorable ambassadors really help to make the case for sharing. I wondered if watching these cute tern chicks would improve the birds’ reputation around here.

If I had a spotting scope, I’d camp out on the beach this entire Fourth of July holiday weekend and offer beachgoers a chance to watch the tern chicks skitter around on the sand we’ve set aside for them. Since I’m scopeless, I’ll be passing around my binoculars instead in the belief that close-up views will affect the hearts and minds of my friends and neighbors. Hopefully those adorable tern chicks will turn out to be spark birds. Hopefully those hearts and minds will continue to set aside beach for birds for years to come.

 


About the Author
 Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share. Learn more about Erin by visiting her website at thefamiliarwilderness.com.


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