To pass the time during the dull evenings of the Great Depression, we used to play a simple little game called Hide The Button. I say “we” meaning “us humans” because I personally made out quite well during the Crash of ’29 thanks to investing heavily in Dust Futures, so was able to afford a proper game of Pit; the fancy version with a bell and everything. The rules of Hide The Button were exceedingly simple: your Mee-Maw would hide a small button, or if you were too poor to afford a button, a rock, somewhere around your modest yet cluttered home (which was the style at the time) and you had to find it. A good Mee-Maw would generously and lovingly offer “hot” & “cold” style clues to keep the children full of hope and encouragement on their quest, which was also the style at the time, and was the true purpose of the game. If you could find the Button, well…. you could do anything.
Yesterday I had the enormously good fortune of accompanying the lovely and incomparable Allison Anholt on a survey of the Forbidden Holgate Wildlife Refuge during the heart of the beach nesting season. I saw things there, and learned things from Allison, that have, once-again, forever changed the way I see the beach, just like the last visit when I was Walking On Eggshells. But most memorable and most unexpected on this visit was getting sucked into a strange game of Hide The Button, but played by Oystercatcher Rules. I had never played this way before. It is a twisted version of the original where the ultimate purpose is to leave you full of hopelessness and despair, the ultimate objective being to make you never want to play the game again, so that the Button can survive to play another day.
The Holgate Wilderness Area was explosive with life, in a way I’ve never seen any beach, anywhere. Several species of beach nesting birds were all noisily intermingling and raising their families. If you thought downtown Beach Haven was crowded, noisy, and chaotic on the Forth Of July Weekend, you should see the beach nesting bird habitat at Holgate.
As we passed through an enormous colony of Least Tern, and multiple broods of Piping Plover families foraging amidst the chaos, we spotted a pair of Oystercatcher in the distance, noisily peeping as they are want to do. LBI has a notoriously poor track record for producing itty-bitty Oystercatcher successfully and seeing a chick in the wilds of the Island would be a dream come true. When I asked Allison about the possibility I received a grimace and a “hmmm… good luck with that.”
Piping Plover keep their chicks close and corral them when they feel threatened. Least Tern keep their chicks similarly confined to the limits of the colony, making it similarly easy to find the young once the adults are spotted. But Oystercatcher take an entirely different approach, playing a frustrating game of Hide the Button where their chick (the Button) hides itself on command, then the adults engage in a variety of cagey and deceptive tactics to make sure you, the opponent, never find their tiny, camouflaged, self-hiding little Button of Love.
The game begins when the adults give a special two-peep call that tells the chick to hide. Once the call is sounded, it is game on, and that chick won’t move, and the game won’t end, until the Oystercatcher see you have lost, epically, by abandoning the area in hopelessness, and then they’ll go to retrieve the chick. For their opponents, it is an eye-twitching, needle-in-a-haystack situation. The chicks are tiny and well-camoflauged… the habitat is usually wide open, vast, reflective, and littered with millions of little bits of things that look exactly like Oystercatcher chicks. For anyone who has ever lost a wedding ring or the family car keys at the beach, you know the pain. Even though you know where you were sitting and walking, once you start searching, all the terrain looks exactly, and dizzyingly, the same.
There are some boundaries to the game as Oystercatcher have strictly defined territories. In fact, the boundaries are so strict, they even have specific kill lines that divide the territories so precisely that two Oystercatcher will happily nest just a few feet from each other along the border of their territories, as long as neither breaches that line. But this gives us no real advantage, as these territories are far larger and more painfully hopeless than even the largest wedding-ring search grid you might stake out on the average beach. Meanwhile, the adults stroll around the territory randomly, pretending to incubate, acting like they are doing something interesting, all while continually telling you that you are not only “cold” but “freezing cold” and trash talking, specifically calling you a “loser” and what-not. Occasionally they will tell you that you are “warm”, but it’s like that riddle with two doors and and two guards, one who always lies and one who always tells the truth… only in this case they are both unpredictable, occasional liars and there are thousands of doors.
Finding Oystercatcher chicks in the Wilderness habitat is so notoriously difficult, time consuming, and unreliable, biologists don’t really trust their own accounting in some areas. The rules were designed by the Oystercatcher to make it a game not worth playing and they have succeeded to some extent in that regard. But there are some clues along the way, and Oystercatcher tracks are a great way to limit the search area. On the first little sand hill we encountered with chick tracks, I excitedly started scouring the reeds and debris for a chick, ignoring in the incessant calls of “Ur freezing cold, Loser!” from the adults far across the beach and the impatient but gentle stare of Allison who had obviously played this game before, both admiring and pitying my youthful hopefulness and naiveté. She waited as I followed the swirling paths of tracks, soon realizing these little track covered hills were everywhere. I had effectively cut the search area in 1/2, but it was still too vast and akin to trying to count all the fish in 1/2 the sea.
This game would require that most fickle element of any game: Luck.
I quickly surrendered. We left the area with a confusing mix of excitement & joy that there were some successfully hatched Oystercatcher chicks at Holgate, sadness that I’d never witness them, and frustration that I’d been beat by the trash-talking Oystercatcher. Maybe the Oystercatcher were right. Maybe, after all, I was a Loser.
But as we glanced back one last time, and zoomed in for one last close up of the adults telling me I was “freezing cold” and a “loser”, we noticed something odd. One adult was carrying a food item in its beak. It had to be taking it somewhere. We backed off even more and continued to crouch and watch.
In a lucky break, this game was turned on its head by its own rules. The chick appeared out of nowhere and started happily following its mom & dad across the open beach. Knowing how the Oystercatcher play this game, it was clear if one of us kept an eye on the chick’s position when the parent gave the call to self-hide, that chick would remain exactly where it was, giving Allison a chance to inspect it quickly. Can you imagine how easy Hide The Button would have been if Mee-Maw had to drop the button wherever she was standing whenever the kids walked in the room?
This was the thrill of a lifetime, and a moment of great hope for LBI wildlife. And it truly was a moment as we quickly hurried out of the area to end this game which the Oystercatcher hate playing, and let them return to their lives in the Wilderness, playing Hide The Button with real predators.
As we walked away I felt content knowing this was a game of a little strategy, and lots of luck. There are few greater disappointments in this world than approaching games of chance with the false hopes you can outsmart them. Heading through another Oystercatcher pair’s territory, towards one last Plover nest to check, I had begun day dreaming of those carnival games where you throw the quarter onto a plate obviously sprayed with PAM, and how maybe one day I would win the giant Hello Kitty Stuffy, when Allison stopped abruptly, and excitedly.
Looking down, there, right in front us, was an Oystercatcher nest with one egg, and a tiny little itty-bitty, not more than a few hours young. The parents were off in the distance screaming “Ur freezing cold!” and “Loser!” at a Herring Gull obliviously, but still threateningly, munching on a crab in their territory.
Luckily this itty-bitty was so young, it could manage no more than a step or two before falling on its face. We got out of there fast before this ‘lil Button tried to follow us home, one step, and one face plant, at a time.
As a fervent lover and supporter of all things Oystercatcher, it was fun and instructive to play their game on the side of their opponent. I consider myself to be a highly evolved mammal and confess that I struggled deeply with the game. I have gained a newfound respect for both the cunning and good-fortune of the tiny-brained mammals that manage to prey on the poor Oystercatcher.
But most of all, I’m oozing with a deep respect for the Wild Beach and for the good people preserving it.
Many Islanders look up and down the beach and are deeply saddened that we somehow, over the years, took a magical paradise and steamrolled it into a line of oversized, seasonal, human play toys that are vacant most of the year, and now must spend hundreds of millions of dollars in perpetuity to make monstrous, lifeless, artificial versions of those beaches and habitats we destroyed to protect those play toys.
It should bring every Islander tremendous pride and hope that these Oystercatcher are managing to squeak out a few ‘lil Buttons to hide on the Island, against the odds. It should bring every Islander tremendous pride and hope that LBI is home to a tiny little refuge that not only preserves a real beach habitat in all of its glory, but is host to the creatures that so desperately depend on it for survival.
While we can never go backwards and restore the incredible paradise we’ve already lost & decimated, we can make an effort to support and respect the tiny slivers that are still left, and help bring a little balance back to places in-the-middle like Barnegat Light State Park. I urge you support the excellent work of folks like Allison Anholt and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ who are working tirelessly to protect the Wild Beach and the creatures that need this Island in ways we never will.