When I first learned back in the winter of 2015 that some crazed scientists were coming to LBI to band and study everybody’s favorite pair of Piping Plover, Tufters & Tacey, I was pretty psyched. Mostly because I mistakenly believed at the time that my multi-year campaign of nonsense propaganda promoting the Tace-ters family as some kind of celebrities had finally paid off. It seemed that news of their many misadventures had reached even the ivory towers of academia all the way in Upstate New York. This would have been an especially sweet victory seeing as how I had completely made up most of the propaganda. +1, Readings From The Northside!
But I was also a little apprehensive about the whole thing. Like any good Islander, I’m naturally weary of anyone who wears pants and shoes to the beach. Perhaps more importantly, the thought of someone mucking around with Tufters & Tacey was scary. These are our last few precious PIPL. They are the very last pair of Piping Plover nesting on the Island in a place where we can actually enjoy them. LBI, and New Jersey in general, celebrates the tough, the proud, the no-nonsense, the gritty, the fun, the bold, the underdog. Tufters and Tacey are all of those things times 10. They are the Island’s ultimate underdogs. They are our wild soul mates of the beach, and most of us have not even recognized it yet. We can’t risk losing these babies.
And so I swiftly and proudly appointed myself the Island’s official beach bum representative on behalf of Tufters’ & Tacey’s interests, and stalked the scientists for the whole summer. As it would turn out, Michelle Stantial and the SUNY team would shatter every stereotype of who environmental scientists are, what they do, and why they do it that I had somehow picked up somewhere along the way of a life on the beach. Like all good scientists, they exposed the enormous bias I was smuggling, hidden somewhere in my board shorts and flip-flops. You can relive these revelations in the 2015 tribute to Michelle Stantial and her partner in the crime of caring, Emily Heiser, in the 2015 tribute Reading Discovering A Couple Of Dorothies On The Other Side Of The Rainbow.
By the end of last Summer, anyone who was worried that Michelle Stantial and the team from SUNY would kill all the babies could finally exhale. Not only did all the babies not die, but New Jersey actually had a fantastically productive Piping Plover season; thanks in part to Michelle’s darting all over the state, from LBI down to Cape May, all summer long in her Tangerine Toyota monitoring daily nearly half the state’s total Piping Plover population. Talk about an Energizer (TM) Bunny. It is exhausting just looking at Michelle’s schedule.
And we were all able to breathe another sigh of relief this spring when first Tufters, and then Tacey, returned to LBI right on schedule and, upon close inspection, it was confirmed that their itty-bitty legs had not fallen off during the winter on account of the bands Michelle had lovingly and carefully slapped on them as part of the study. What’s more, as we all know now thanks to a massive spoiler, Tufters & Tacey successfully kept all four of their 2016 itty bitties alive. This is their most successful season ever. Maybe it was luck. Maybe not. Whatever the case, the Piping Plover are just like us. Mother Nature messes with LBI’s people, we deal, we come back stronger. People mess around with LBI’s Piping Plover, they deal, and they come back stronger.
Michelle Stantial is a magnificent individual. She exudes smarts, strength, passion, gentleness, caring, and good humor. She is also a phenomenal teacher and educator. The problem is, if you are ever lucky enough to be around her and pick her brain, there is almost always an adorable Piping Plover chick somewhere nearby, usually in her hand. It is hard to concentrate on anything she might say, no matter how brilliant, in the presence of such adorableness.
When I first asked Michelle about the actual purpose of her study, beyond just getting to finger snuggle Piping Plover, my understanding was that it was a “Chick Mortality Study”. Put simply, she was trying to understand why Piping Plover die all the time. She had come to band our chicks, monitoring them all summer, measuring and weighing them each week, and attaching radio antennas to a select few. We all know Piping Plover die all the time. It appeared she was gathering data on who dies, when they die, and hopefully in some cases, why.
Fortunately, I’ve since had a few chances to talk to Michelle & team SUNY when there weren’t any cute, little chickies running around hogging all the attention. It turns out that it was just the original plan to do “Chick Mortality Study”. They were going to slap a few fancy radio antennas on some PIPL for a season and see what they could learn. But it soon grew into a much larger and more important project and is trying to answer a much more complicated, and important, question.
As has been well documented on Readings From The Northside, The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey does a bang up job protecting our Piping Plovers. Thanks to their determined, thankless, sweaty, and underpaid (relative to its massive value to everyone) work, we’ve been producing a goodly number of babies who grow into adults and leave the state for the Bahamas each winter. Yet the average number of Piping Plover pairs showing up back in New Jersey each spring for nesting season remains stubbornly stuck around 100 pairs, even though we keep getting better at killing less babies. So where are they all going? Why aren’t they coming back? We all know that once you’ve had a taste of summer on the Jersey Shore that you not only come back, but you bring your family back, and so on through the generations. It just doesn’t add up.
As Season Two with the SUNY team kicks off, hopes are high and evidence of a recovery of Piping Plover is everywhere on the Island. As the first generations of banded PIPL start showing up, and not showing up, in New Jersey and around Long Beach Island, much stuff is being learned. Valuable, interesting stuff. Even we are learning stuff. For one, we know for certain for the first time ever that Tacey is actually Tacey, and not just some random she-bird I’ve been lazily calling Tacey each season. Ha! +2, Readings From The Northside.
Welcome to The Recovery, people. We are clearly on the road to 200 pairs of Piping Plover in New Jersey. Years of hard work by the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ has set us down the path, and the incredible insights that are only just starting to roll in from Michelle Stantial’s work and the SUNY study are like a massive light shining down that road and showing us all the way.
We are standing at a crossroads. The feeling of destiny-in-our-hands is palpable on the wild beach. Years of hard work by so many thoughtful people has preserved for us an incredible opportunity: the opportunity to restore a little balance to the coast by treasuring its wildness. Nothing would indicate our success at achieving a little vacation/nature balance like reaching 200 pairs of Piping Plovers in New Jersey. The Piping Plover are the itty-bitty indicators of the health of the beach. Their success or their failure is a mirror that shows us how we are doing taking care of it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you can’t truly love LBI without loving the Piping Plover who were born to live here. I say that honestly as a regular guy who has become a reluctant Plover Lover. Reluctant because I think birds are boring. A Plover Lover because after years of getting to know them and their situation, I have come to the unavoidable conclusion that it is only our grossest selfishness that causes them so much trouble; and that the trouble we cause them is just a tiny symptom of the much larger problem of our imbalanced relationship to the natural wonder of the coast that is the reason we love it so much in the first place.
Three cheers for Michelle Stantial, Jonathan Cohen, and team SUNY. Their work is giving us all the gift of insight, the gift of knowledge, the gift of understanding. It will eventually be up to the rest of us whether we act on it or not.
For now let’s just hope this project continues to get funded for the next decade so this project can build on itself, and we can make our choice with the best information possible. Our choice is simple. Will we continue to steamroll and degrade the coast we love so much until there is nothing left to enjoy? Or will we pause, take stock, and make just a few ultimately small sacrifices to keep things balanced and thriving?
We need to choose wisely. Because the beach is awesome.
And most importantly, let’s hope Michelle Stantial’s hard work, huge heart, and powerful brain discover something truly ground breaking while studying Tufters & Tacey. Because that would make them the celebrities they deserve to be for real, which is what we’ve been hoping for all along. And that would be +3, Readings From The Northside.