One And Only Winky

“This has to be the best day ever!” is what I was probably thinking while barreling through Harvey Cedars on my way to stalk Michelle Stantial and RELI (Rebecca Linhart) for one last hurrah this season with Tufters, Tacey, & the Brood That Didn’t Die. The babies had all fledged and were now PIPL (Piping Plover) grown. Michelle & RELI were going to attempt to weigh and measure them one last time, even though Tagalong, Samoa, Do Si Do, and Thin Mint were no longer little turds and could easily fly away from scientists, flipping them bird, and perhaps leaving the Island forever. It was like a Plover Prom of sorts. Hijinks were sure to ensue.

I had almost reached Barnegat Light when my phone started blowing up.

Change of plans. Dobby & Myrtle hatched.

This is why you don’t txt & drive. Even though I was arguably able to safely sneak a peak at Michelle’s message while stopped at a light, the resulting adrenaline and mental agitation made me completely unfit to drive, especially through Loveladies where they emphatically love their children.

From the very first moment I almost stepped on their little eggs, I guess I never really expected Dobby & Myrtle’s unbelievably dicey and amateur nest, laid right in the flood of zone in the middle of a crowded beach, would make it this far. But it did. This was probably best txt ever sent or received.

But it was also a little distressing. I had been looking forward to filming this hatch for a month; not only was lil’ Dobby a local celebrity, and this nest a significant milestone on the Road To 200, but the difficulty of fencing it put the nest about as close to a photographer as you could possibly get. And the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ had decided not to exclose the nest with wire fencing probably because of vandalism or accidental destruction risk. So for 25 long days I’d been drooling and giggling while imagining the ultra-close, totally unobstructed hatchy-scratchy video I would make for you, dear Reader, were this hatch day ever to come. My calendar was already neatly filled with the multiple nest checks I’d be doing over the next few days so I wouldn’t miss a thing. My first check was the next sunrise, two days earlier than Dobby & Myrtle’s expected hatch. I was so on it.

But so were Dobby & Myrtle apparently when they decided to hatch it up three days early.

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Kelsey Grover (KEGR) arrives with a team of volunteers giggling from the good news of the hatch, also detoured here by a murderball txt from Michelle Stantial. I wish I had gotten their names. But the events that followed were a little overwhelming.

So I shifted gears and raced to Dobby & Myrtle’s place to meet this next generation of very special itty-bitties. Storms were gathering in the west as I ran to the beach to meet the babies, smiling as wildly as a child who had just arrived on the Island after the last day of school on the first day of summer vacation.

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Reality Kicks In: Trucks barreling back and forth across the beach just feet from the nest.
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Cry For Help: Things don’t look right. The first PIPL I see is Dobby, cowering baby-less beneath the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ fence posts: the only place a PIPL can find safety & comfort on our beaches.
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RELI The Rock. Rebecca Linhart is a Gem. A Jewel. She’s always shining as brightly as she is standing strong. To see her looking this concerned made our hearts sink as we approached her where she sat in the middle of the beach watching something intently through her binoculars, and frequently checking the Million Dollar Baby Bag.
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Peeking in, there is only one where there should be four.
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One & Only Winky

Disaster.

RELI had arrived on LBI early today, so had just popped in quickly to check on Dobby & Myrtle when she stumbled into the total chaos of the unexpected hatch. We’ll never know exactly what she was thinking and feeling when she first discovered the nest was gone, when she finally located Dobby & Myrtle running chaotically through the tire tracks and vacationers, or when she realized with certainty that there was only one chick when there should have been four. I didn’t ask. I knew exactly what that felt like. Blech.

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Search Party. RELI quickly organizes a search party of volunteers to find the bodies of the presumedly dead itty bitties. It’s a crime scene and a mystery. After all, a big part of the hard work Michelle Stantial, RELI, and SUNY-ESF are doing here is studying chick mortality.

So what could have happened? Only recovering the bodies would let anyone know for sure. But the fact that not one, or two, but three freshly hatched Piping Plover chicks were snuffed out so quickly does suggest a few clues. Fox, feral cats, and other critters can pretty much be ruled out. There were no tracks in the area and those types of attacks tend to occur under the cover of darkness. While they could have been eaten by Gulls or Crows, flying predators would be lucky to pick off one, or maybe two, but all three so quickly seems unlikely. Possible, but unlikely, and time is of the essence.

A likely culprit in this case was vehicular chick-slaughter, judging by the large number of tire tracks running through the nesting area, and the many vehicles on the beach at the time. Piping Plover are precocial animals. They go rogue and start running around the beach looking for food almost immediately after popping out their adorable little eggs. Tire tracks are Grand Canyons to itty-bitties. Once they fall in one, they are too small and uncoordinated to get out, which all but assures they’ll get squashed by the next off road vehicle to come by. What’s worse is that the parents need to brood the babies frequently, so often gather the chicks together in the tire track trap where the rogue baby is stuck.

But who knows. Without a body and a weapon, you’ll pretty much never solve the mystery. That’s exactly what team SUNY is doing here and trying to learn more about through their study.

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Focus on the Living. Winky waits safely in the Million Dollar Baby Bag, full of life, waving his tiny wings for attention, and peeping his itty-bitty head off.
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RELI gets back work, measuring Winky’s tiny wings. Despite the mystery and the tragedy surrounding her, life goes on, so RELI soldiers through. As does lil’ Winky. The one and only.
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Local Island volunteer Anna Bradley pitches in to record data for RELI while the search party looks for the bodies of the others.
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A radio transmitter is attached to Winky. His chances of survival here over the next 24 hours are slim. The radio transmitter will help keep track of him for the purpose of protecting him, and recovering his itty-bitty corpse in the event of a tragedy, so more can be known about why our Piping Plover die all the time.
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Continuing to search for clues.
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Winky conveniently poses to show us his tiny ring bands while Michelle continues to watch Dobby & Myrtle in hopes Winky’s siblings might have simply gone completely and totally rogue and might still be out there somewhere.
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Winky, our one and only. I wish we could hold you forever and snuggle you to safety.

When the thunder began to rumble across the beach and the lightning began to surround the Island, it was time to let Winky go back to Myrtle & Dobby. We barely reached our cars when the downpour started. No chance of visiting the Tace-ters and getting those final weights and measures, and no chance for a debrief. Besides, who would want to. It’s time to think, and time to digest.

Speeding home through the fierce winds and hail, trying not to get distracted by the lightning all around, I thought of Dobby, Myrtle, and little Winky. On any normal day I might wonder if they were OK in such brutal weather, but today, I was glad. This weather would clear the beach for sure, and give them a tiny bit of rest to regroup, and digest the trauma. Little is known about what Dobby & Myrtle are thinking or feeling, if anything, about all this. But not a single person who was there, including the scientists, would be able to describe Dobby & Myrtle’s behavior as anything less than “totally traumatized.”

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As soon as the storm had passed, I raced back to the beach to check on Winky and play traffic cop for the afternoon until news of Dobby’s hatch could get out. I should have expected to find Michelle Stantial there. She never left. She waited in her car, then returned to the beach the moment the rains let up, waving her antenna in the air despite the lingering lighting, and trying to track our one and only Winky.
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Welcome To The Recovery, Winky. Dobby & Myrtle’s one and only peanut is safe for now.

Welcome To The Recovery. Before you let your weekend at the beach get spoiled by this tiny glimpse at the horrific lives our Island’s adorable local animals live under our feet, remember there is some upside here. First of all, we have Winky. And boy, is he adorbz. Scroll back through, just ignoring all the understandably frowny faces and tech gear, and just look at what a fuzzy little gremlin he is. This same story plays out all up and down the coast, all summer long, and often ends with everybody dead. We might have only one here, but he is our one and only. We got something. And he is something else.

Next, The Recovery is a long game. It ain’t always pretty, but it’s real, and we can make it better. The problems Dobby & Myrtle face on our beaches can shine a ton of light on how we can help future nests and keep The Recovery rolling. Of course it is way, way easier and less painful just not to look in the first place; if we don’t see them, we can ignore them and comfort ourselves with fantasies that the itty bitty PIPL don’t exist, have other places to go, can take care of themselves, aren’t our problem or responsibility, and what-have-you. But that strategy is tired. Now is the time to stare the reality in the face, because the Recovery is under way. There is momentum. There has never been a better time to invest yourself emotionally because there is wind at your back. The corner has been turned, and there is hope. You can see it in the beach goers turning out to help, even if that means joining a death march line to find dead babies on the beach. You can see in the fact that you’re still reading this. The hard stuff was already done by someone else. Sweet. And it is all thanks to those few modestly masochistic individuals who never gave up when the extinction looked like a sure thing and were able to keep trying through the hopelessness and despair.

Most of all, we have Michelle Stantial & RELI and all of the volunteers, interns, and others on the ground, totally committed to facing this and figuring it all out for us, and throwing signs and street lamps to guide us all along the Road To 200. There is no doubt this was the lowest I’ve ever seen them, and we’ll spare the shots of Michelle in tears. We’ve already seen that before. We absolutely and urgently need to find a way to get wheelbarrows full of money to SUNY-ESF so they continue this study next season. This is the crossroads. This is the Recovery.

So Welcome to the Recovery, Little Winky. You were born here on LBI, as your father was, and probably your grandparents too, just like many of us. We expect to have you with us for generations.

Here’s wishing us all a lifetime full of magical summers down the shore.

Stay tuned.