The unbearably smart and inconceivably compassionate Allison Anholt kindly, or perhaps naively, invited us beyond the plastic rope into the heart of LBI’s ultimate forbidden zone: Summertime Holgate. Perhaps she knew we would find something there… something to enlighten the dark controversies that surround a protected Wilderness Area in the heart of the Jersey Shore. Maybe something to demonstrate the important and difficult work being done there. Or maybe she just got tired of my incessantly annoying emails and txts saying stuff like “Hey Allison… I was in the bathroom and thought you might have tried to call me to say that you wanted to show me Holgate like you said you might someday” and “Ummmm… yeah… someone else, like, said they wanted to show me Holgate and like, I totally want to go with you, but, I like want to tell them no, but like, I don’t know if we’re going?”
I was giddy as a school girl, blabbering on and on, so excited to see my beloved Holgate in the Summer. Living the Dream. Awesome!11! Walking bayside, we immediately started noticing beach nesting birds like Oystercatcher and Least Tern, the Reason d’être for the Wilderness Area’s preservation. We were working our way towards a Piping Plover nest in the distance when we stumbled upon the above Oystercatcher scrape, complete with eggs. The mommy and daddy had spotted us long before and were off in the distance “false incubating”: pretending to be sitting on eggs in another location. A clever ruse to keep us away from the real nest. Epic fail.
I got down on my belly to take the above shot for you, dear reader, carefully and gently, being sure not to disturb the eggs.
But when I got up and started checking my camera, I noticed Allison smoothing out and covering the photographer’s imprint I had left in the sand. “Oh, don’t worry.” she said looking and sounding somewhat worried. “We just don’t want to leave anything to attract predators.” I became very aware of my humanness suddenly as I looked in the sand. I learned long ago, as young lass, not to leave my empty box of CheezItz (TM) at the beach, but I never thought about the smells and other subtle marks I might be leaving behind.
We continued on and I wanted to catch a Least Tern courtship taking place above our heads. I told Allison I would catch up. “Just make sure you follow my footprints.” she said. “I promise”, I promised a little too quickly. I was not a quarter of the way back to her, humming happy songs to myself and lost in a Holgate Daydream when I realized I had lost Allison’s tracks completely. Justin Timberlake was right: People make promises, all the time, then they turn right around an’ brea-ea-k them.
The sudden awareness struck like a Peregrine Falcon at 240 MPH: this was a minefield of precious eggs. Once again, I started feeling really, really human and I felt my presence, and the shadow it cast, growing. As we moved forward I could now sense that we had an invisible, but enormous, human bubble around us, and that bubble was effecting everything in this fragile world for 100 feet in every direction. The force was strong with us, but it wasn’t that good Jedi force. It was more like that bad Darth-Vadery-Dark-Side kind of force.
It was strange to feel so out of place at Holgate, the one place on Earth I really feel at home.
Each Piping Plover exclosure we reached was a relief. At least there was a fence to keep me from crushing the dreams, families, and futures of the world’s most awesome shorebirds. Well, a relief until I remembered that I was now depositing my human stink all over the nest area, leaving marks invisible to me but unbearably fascinating to fox, raccoon, and other mammals that would love to find these eggs more than I would.
And yes, that is a Piping Plover exclosure, not and enclosure, Allison informs us. It is designed to keep the predators out, not to keep the Piping Plover in.
We reached an area I affectionately call “The Killing Fields.” This is a spot where you can watch your favorite big birds, like Peregrine Falcon, Snowy Owls, and Merlin maim, kill, and devour your favorite small birds like Dunlin & Sandpiper. (Tip: it helps to rock back and forth and hum “The Circle of Life” from the Lion King while you watch such a spectacle and try to grapple with its meaning.)
The Fields are a gi-normous stretch of desolate looking, vegetationless sand spanning from Ocean to Bay, made more-so-seemingly-desolate by Sandy. Here, Sandy successfully accomplished what she attempted to do to our houses: violently struck down everything in her path leaving only an apparently lifeless debris field. But lifeless it is not. Instead, the Killing Fields are booming with nests.
While the Tip, Tucker’s Island, and the huge beach at the southern most end of LBI are the traditional high end real estate for beach nesting birds, the Killing Fields are now the fastest growing segment in the beach nesting market. It’s booming.
The fact that such rich and complex ecology exists in such a place shows undeniably that such places are supposed to exist. When I first bought my home on LBI, all my grandmother had to say is “Don’t do that; it is going to wash away.” Many quiet meteorological years made that advice sound old-timey, but Sandy was a reminder. It is hard to deny that we’ve overbuilt our coast and now live at odds with nature’s intention. Since we can’t go back to those simpler times when smaller clusters of more-replaceable homes dotted the Island, we’re left with the high drama of 100 ska-billion dollar beach replenishment projects. These dreadfully phony dune/beach combos are horrifically lifeless places. They are the McDonald’s of beaches and are becoming more common and more necessary and certainly show the future as we are currently capable of envisioning it.
My walk through the Killing Fields showed me just how far gone we are. As much as I love it, what we call a beach today is hardly that at all anymore, and once the Army Corps comes tearing through, it will be even less so.
My sudden realization that the beach I loved so much, MY beach, was barely a beach at all anymore was just as suddenly interrupted by a Piping Plover in the distance, hobbling around, spastically off balance, and looking wounded. But your chicanery won’t fool us little PIPL; we’ve seen you use the broken wing defense before. In fact, it just backfired, as we are intelligent mammals and now are certain you have something to hide.
And there is only one precious bit of Treasure a PIPL has to hide.
These adorbz, itty-bitty cotton-balls-on-toothpicks are just a mere two days old, and some of the first hatched on the coast. These were truly wild PIPL, living as they were born to in the Holgate Winderness Area. We kept a good distance as our “human bubble” projected far across the Killing Fields. With the PIPL focused on our presence, the Black Backs swooped overhead, eager for Mama or Papa to make just false move so they could snack on the world’s most adorable thing and boast to their Black Backed friends.
I would have loved to stay for hours and get epic itty-bitty PIPL shots, but I grew too uncomfortable in my human skin. Watching Allison cringe deeply at every predator fly-by made it clear. We certainly did not want to witness a 2-day-old itty-bitty getting served, and more importantly, did not want to be the cause of it. It was time to go. (OK, OK, the wind was terrible and so was the light, which leads us wonder how I would have felt or behaved if conditions had been perfect)
I’ve been left speechless by this whole experience, which probably sounds like a surprising closing to this painfully long winded post. It feels very much like one would on the ride home after eating a dozen, breaded Killer Beesting Wings at the Chegg in Beach Haven: you know something amazing just happened, but it will take some time to digest.
Allison is a gem of a woman. Her incredible intelligence, passion, compassion, good humor, and leadership truly opened my eyes to things I was not seeing. Following in her her footsteps while walking on eggshells in a forbidden wilderness has opened new worlds to me. The whole Beach Nesting Bird issue is controversial and contentious on many fronts, dividing communities and pitting husbands against wives, neighbors against neighbors, up and down the coast. And it will only get worse with each passing season while we bumble like we do into an uncertain future. A quick scroll through the archives shows that I as much as anyone am saddened deeply each spring when we’re kicked out of Holgate. I grumble along with the old timers out at the tip all winter long about the true necessity of the Wilderness Area.
Now, I have seen it. It is necessary. The whole ecological picture was not apparent to me until this trip. It is not replaceable. I saw Holgate doing what it was created to do and, as much time as I’ve spent there, I never fully grasped the depth of its job. Importantly, the rich complexity I witnessed says only one thing: it is supposed to be this way. Most of the stock arguments I’ve heard for years about why Holgate should be opened, or worse, developed, fell instantly flat and now sound so painfully ignorant it will be forever embarrassing to engage in one of those conversations in the future.
In the end, it turns out Allison was not so naive after all. To the contrary, she paid tribute to the birds she loves by pulling a clever trick more effective than even the “false incubation” of the Oystercatcher or the “broken wing defense” of the Piping Plover. She lured me out to Holgate with the promise of Piping Plover chicks, then masterfully transformed me into one of the Winderness Area’s biggest advocates.
Well played Allison. Well played.