Fast Times At Barnegat Inlet

When Phoebe Cates came slowly out of the Dark Tidepool…
… Pete felt a strange feeling, and knew his life would never be the same.

I’ll be honest and say it clearly: I really, really didn’t want to like Pete.

You see, back in 2016, Piping Plover “Pete McLain” was something of a little celebrity. An adorable, polarizing, irritating, little celebrity. For Pete was the first PIPL to nest at Island Beach State Park in lord knows how many years and so he was kind of a big deal; loved by many, and hated by more.

For conservationists, animal lovers, and State managers, Pete was a dream come true. Finally, a Piping Plover nesting at Island Beach State Park; a park whose entire purpose and existence is for the preservation of the natural heritage of New Jersey’s barrier islands. And seeing as how Piping Plover are the crown jewel of the beaches along the Jersey Shore, their absence from Island Beach was almost an embarrassment. Miles of beachfront preserved for local animals like them, yet not a one to be found. In fact, Island Beach State Park’s beaches had become so lifeless, the Park had even been allowing folks to drive all over the preciously preserved habitat in their deepening hopelessness that it would ever fulfill its real purpose and be good for anything other than another NJ roadway.

This of course pushed Pete further into the limelight when the State had to shut down driving on the beach where Pete was suddenly and unexpectedly trying to create a nest. Not only did the state want to… it had to. It’s federal law. This was a rude wakeup call to many who had become so accustomed to four wheeling there that they had forgotten why Island Beach State Park existed in the first place. And so social media erupted with anger at Pete, the “job killing” Piping Plover… the tool of the State who was helping big government to rob us of our God given right to drive automobiles on beaches.

From my vantage point across the inlet at Barnegat Light State Park, I was annoyed by the whole thing.

I was annoyed by all the drama about the temporary closure of a few miles of beachfront to driving during the summer. Over on my side of inlet, I hadn’t been able to drive anywhere, Island wide, for a few months, and I wouldn’t be able to again until September at the earliest. And we’ve never been able to drive Barnegat Light, or along the inlet. The Island Beachers sure sounded spoiled to those of us who drive the beaches of LBI. Even with the closure, they had it real good over there. Real good. They should have been humming Hallelujah, closure and all.

And I was also annoyed at the raging, obsessive fans of Pete too.

Pete would wind up returning in 2017 and mating with “Diane Bennet-Chase”, laying a humble one egg nest, hatching it, and raising their young “Lord Stirling” all the way to fledge. A huge team of volunteers offered to watch over this sole, tiny Lord. “Lord Stirling.” Meh. Named for William Alexander, the Earl of Stirling from whom the property which is now Island Beach State Park was originally deeded …even the name sounded overhyped to the point of being irritating. In my most bitter moments, I would tell people that I was pretty sure the precious Island Beach baby PIPL’s name was “Lord Narky Narc.”

To be clear, I get why there was so much fuss over this one pair of plovers, with their one egg nest, and their single, little Lord. Their success could establish a productive, well protected breeding area at Island Beach, putting it on the Piping Plover’s map for years to come. Pete’s nest could be the start of something really big, for the species, for the State, for the Park, and for us. Yet at the time, over in Barnegat Light, we had five, active pairs of Piping Plovers with big broods of three or four chicks, living hand to mouth, and struggling every day for survival. All of the attention on the drama at Island Beach State Park and the potential future it represented risked distracting attention and resources away from the reality of all of the chicks struggling on our side of the inlet.

Besides, and most importantly, Tufters was the true celebrity Plover. And Barnegat Light the most important future habitat in New Jersey. I was annoyed that everyone was missing this very important point.

So when Pete actually returned again in the spring of 2018, it was, once again, kind of big deal. I chuckled with glee when Pete, surprisingly, started showing up more and more frequently on our side of the inlet as the spring wore on. As he split his time on the north and south sides of the inlet, I thought, what a victory for Barnegat Light that would be… for us to steal Island Beach State Park’s precious sire, Pete McLain. That would show everyone. Each time I’d see him foraging at Barnegat Light, I’d unconsciously laugh a mischievous, evil laugh. And every time I saw a photo of him back at Island Beach State Park, my blood would boil.

For “Diane Bennett-Chase” had returned this spring to Island Beach as well. But for whatever reason, Pete and Diane failed to connect. Maybe it was the pressure of celebrity life. Maybe it was the feeble, one egger from the year before. Whatever it was, they soon divorced. Diane took a new mate, and so Pete started hanging out more and more on our side of the inlet. And meanwhile, “Loopsie”, sibling of “Poopsie,” from Holgate in 2017, took over Pete McLain’s former territory at the tip of Island Beach State Park. With a bird name “Loopsie” having stolen his turf, and and Diane creeping around Island Beach with her new lover, Pete was done.

And so it was, we won. We officially stole Pete McLain from Island Beach State Park, and by default, Pete became the new master of Tufters’ turf, the new Lord of Lighthouse. Yet the victory was only sweet for a moment. The instant I realized this had actually happened, and I confronted the fact that my burning desire for this outcome was based purely on bitterness and revenge, my heart sank, and I worried deeply. Was Pete truly up for the job of filling Tufters’ itty-bitty, orange shoes?

I began observing and evaluating Pete with tremendous focus and intent.

With a lack of female PIPL around, Pete spent a lot of the spring just kind of hanging around, creating a man cave, and working on his Super Scrape (TM). Each time a new female stopped by the Park, Pete would use his celebrity charms to lure her back to his Super Scrape (TM). Yet these short flings rarely lasted more than a night or two. They were never impressed. The only thing Pete was winning over with his Super Scrape (TM) was me. I discovered that Pete was absolutely charming, and hilarious.

That is, until she arrived. That evening when the shy, second year female “Phoebe Cates” first bathed in the Dark Tidepool, and Pete saw her, was the last time he ever worked on his Super Scrape (TM) again.

I believe Pete and I both saw destiny that evening.

And now we all see that Barnegat Light is truly the home for celebrity PIPL, and is confirmed, absolutely, as the most important habitat in New Jersey.