Where Do Plovers Go When They Die? Searching For Cyclops and The Spirit Of The Radio.

the-cyclops
The Cyclops. Rest In Peace.

It is with a heavy, heavy heart I tell you: Cyclops has perished. Now, I know that you are not supposed to play favorites but, I will confess, I did, and Cyclops was it. The third born of Mustache BYLL & Myrtle’s brood was my precious, little Rocket Doodle. He caught my eye because he was the fastest PIPL I’ve ever seen. He captured my heart because he was so especially adorable. Watching him just always reminded me of why the beach is more fun with our local animals than without them. He will be missed.

cyclops
Cyclops Going Rogue at Dawn. Just a few hours old. This is the special moment when Cyclops first left the safety of his nest exclosure and his proud papa Mustache BYLL. Like all of us, his destiny was death. But he was lucky enough to spend some time in between on the beach, and so, he wins.
rocket-doodlw
Always Curious. Farewell My Rocket Doodle.

As previously reported in The Evolution Of Parenting, Mustache BYLL & Myrtle run a crazy circus as parents. Finding & counting the babies of this family has been especially challenging and the stressed-out chaos of Mustache BYLL & Myrtle have made it a truly woeful errand.

Finding Cyclops while he ran through the dunes of Barnegat Light, with his parents flying around him like lunatics and peeping their tiny heads off, was hard enough; but finding his tiny, dead, itty-bitty body on a vast beach so we can learn what happened to him borders on impossible.

Still, it’s worth a try — because Cyclops was wearing a wire.

piping-plover-backback-fashion-show
It’s a Backpack Fashion Show, or maybe a Cotton Candy Dance Party. Or maybe an antenna sword fight. Larry & Steph’s babies work the runway and model their fancy radio transmitters for us. These are the same kind Cyclops was wearing when he vanished.
piping-plover-hiding-with-transmitter
With his radio transmitter, Cyclops can run, but he can’t hide.

Longtime Readers might remember that Michelle Stantial has been deploying radio transmitters on PIPL chicks throughout New Jersey for the last three years, as part of her study to learn why Piping Plover Die All The Time.

I recently asked Michelle to explain the tech to us, but to please be brief, because we bore easily:

Sure, so, the tag attached to the chick is transmitting an electromagnetic signal. When a chick wearing one goes missing, we use an antenna tuned to the same frequency to receive the signal that the chick’s antenna is transmitting.

 

It works just like your car radio.

 

The radio station is like the chick’s transmitter. It sends out a signal, and your car radio receives it.

 

~ Michelle Stantial

While all of the chicks in the study get their little colored bands, only one baby from each family gets the high honor of wearing a wire. This is for two reasons:

First, to minimize risk. When they first started the study, they wanted to limit any negative impacts to just one baby per family in case something were to go wrong. Looking at the photos above of those big radio backpacks on the those tiny babies (shown at one day old to make the point), they look pretty scary. A casual glance might lead you to think they are surely dangerous and would certainly lower the chick’s chance of survival.

The funny thing is, my observation on LBI has been that the project has suffered the exact opposite problem: it’s always the chicks without transmitters who wind up dead.┬áThe best example of this was Beth in 2015. She was the only survivor of Tufters & Tacey’s brood that year and was also the only one wearing a wire.

A Side Note: it is always a little sad to see which baby was picked to wear a wire… not because they are at greater risk, but because, in a kind-of weird way, having a transmitter on makes you the baby everyone kind-of hopes will be the one to vanish if someone is going die in the brood. It’s like they are marked for death.

Of course no one wants a baby to die… but you get my point.

Overall though, the process of attaching the transmitters is essentially as safe as a kindergarten craft. Some dull scissors cut off a little fuzz, and the tag is literally stuck on with a drop of glue.

receivier
Michelle prepares the radio receiver to hunt for Cyclops

The second reason only one baby per family wears a wire is that Michelle can’t afford to put them on all the babies. “Afford” isn’t just related to the price of the radio tags and antennas, which is not-insignificant. It also takes time and effort to put them on, and to maintain them. They fall off; a lot. (It’s a fine balance…. the goal is that the transmitter will eventually fall off so the bird is not stuck with it for life… but it should stay on long enough that we can study the survival rate of the chick.) It also takes a lot of time and effort to track the babies and to find the transmitters, even with Michelle’s powerful antenna and great experience. It’s a needle in a haystack situation — trying to find the tiny signal in a sprawling dune is a tiring and frustrating exercise. (Much, much less so than trying to find the little, perfectly-camouflaged corpse, but still….)

Michelle’s car radio analogy is especially funny because listening for the signal is much less like cranking some tunes on your way down the Boulevard than it is like listening for Aliens at SETI. She essentially listens to some loud, annoying static and, if she is lucky, hears a faint, little “beep beep beep” from the signal. She says stuff like, “Listen…. there!” while you say stuff like “What? I don’t hear anything??!!! All hear is that static and it makes me want to claw my ears off!” to which she replies, “There!!!11! Don’t you hear it????”

Time is of the essence as lots of things can happen to those tiny transmitters after a chick is lost. The battery in them only lasts about 28 days. They can get washed away, or squashed, or picked up and carried home by someone.

They are a crude tool, for sure.

roof-ant
Michelle busts out the big guns in the search for Cyclops: a heavy-duty, rooftop antenna for a quaint drive around Barnegat Light.

Due to the difficulties involved with finding and tracking Mustache BYLL & Myrtle’s brood, little Cyclops was discovered missing kind of late, which lowers the chance of a successful recovery. A thorough search of the beach and the dune with her antennae failed to pick up the signal signal from little Cyclops’ radio tag. Maybe he was taken by a wave. Maybe a child put him in a bucket, where he died, and his transmitter was thrown in the trash. But maybe a crow got him and took him over to Kubel’s dumpster.

So Michelle decides to try a new strategy: driving around Barnegat Light with a massive antennae on the roof of her truck.

driving-for-plovers
Searching For Cyclops.

It was a valiant effort, and despite the grim circumstances, a nice afternoon for  driving through the pleasant, historic neighborhoods of Barnegat Light. It was a reminder how we are all one beach community; us and the animals, our lives intertwined.

A few phantom “ghost signals” were picked up which kept things interesting, but they vanished as suddenly as they appeared, and slowly drained the motivation to keep going. Cyclops it appears, has truly vanished.

Just as she was about to quit, I suggested one more hot spot I knew of: a corner with great visibility to the Ocean & the Bay & the Inlet… and also a favorite hangout for the types of avian predators who might have snatched little Cyclops.

michelle-stantial-mustache-bills
When she made this face, I thought she had realized what a ridiculous photo I’d set up and would throw the antennae at my face. But nope… she just got another phantom signal.
looking-for-cyclops
Michelle Finds A Cyclops. Just not the right kind.

Despite the fail in finding Cyclops, Michelle has been vindicated in her use of radio tags throughout the project. Lots of lost doodles have been found, and their antennas recovered; they have been dug of Ghost Crab burrows, pulled from the bushes surrounded by Mink tracks, and found under the perches of Great Horned Owls. Each time, something new is learned and our understanding of how we can help restore our local beach nesting animals to a sustainable population grows.

It’s a crude tech, but a place to start. We didn’t not-travel because the airplane hadn’t been invented yet. At the current pace of technological innovation, it is only a matter of years before we have the right device for the job. Most of us have a fully-transmitting 24/7 geolocation device in our pocket right now; one which we also type most of our hopes, dreams, and fears into on a daily basis. It is only a matter of time before our endangered animals have such a thing in their pockets.

Now if only the scientists can figure out how to get pockets on Piping Plovers….