Finding Tacey, In The Flesh

opener
Not The Opener I’d Hoped For

Yeah, so… admittedly it’s not a great picture. It’s definitely not the one I imagined as the opener for a Reading as momentous as this one; the Reading where I tell you about how Michelle Stantial and I went on an adventure up to Sandy Hook to find Tacey. About how we actually found her. And her new babies.

No… I imagined some beautiful portrait of Tacey, looking marvelously radiant and thriving in her new life up north… with the New York City skyline glimmering in the background. Or maybe a brochure-quality image of the entrance to the Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, with some massive, iconic sign or something.

But I don’t have those. I didn’t get them. I botched it.

I should have checked the forecast.

searching-for-tacey
“I don’t know if I think I see Tacey… but I’m so excited!”

I hesitate to say the trouble began at sunrise that morning when I arrived at Barnegat Light State Park to check up on Pete the Piping Plover. Because when I opened the back of my Jeep and discovered that all of my photo gear and optics were still sitting uselessly back on my dining room table, I didn’t throw a tantrum. I simply chose to believe it was meant-to-be and headed back home.

And it was back at home where I’d shoot off the brief message to the great PIPL scientist Michelle Stantial:

I’m thinking about heading up to Sandy Hook to see Tacey.

It was just a thought. I was not prepared for the almost immediate response:

I’ll go with you! I’m driving north right now and I’m almost to LBI!! Come meet me at the Parkway and I’ll drive!!1!

This is probably where things actually went wrong. I should have checked the forecast. Prepared. Dressed appropriately. But I was just too excited. Instead I simply grabbed my keys, jumped back in the Jeep, and was off to find Tacey.

It was a clever ruse, but a fair trade. It turned out that part of the reason Michelle was so amenable to my ridiculous desire to find Tacey was that she needed a hand with some Piping Plover work just south of Sandy Hook. And as is often the case with the beat down Plovers, the work was more difficult and took much longer than expected. And it was much hotter too.

maybe-over-here
Suns out, guns out. “Why don’t you point your massive camera lens at those people over there, and slowly look at them one by one, to see if there are any park staff there who can help us find Tacey!”

By the time we reached the entrance to the Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, I was too busy trying to aim all of her car’s air conditioning vents to blow up and under my shirt to think about getting a photo. Add to that the fact that we were so completely winging it here, we didn’t even have the cash handy to pay the entrance fee to the park. So as we sat there blocking the entrance while I tore through bags in the trunk trying to scrape together enough money to get in and find Tacey, my thoughts were more on the line of angry vacationers glaring at us, and my embarrassment at being such a noob. I don’t think I even saw the massive welcome sign which would have made such a great opener for this Reading. In fact, I’m only guessing that there is one at all.

And I can’t remember exactly when it was that either of us was reminded that Sandy Hook was a sprawling, inaccessible place, and that Tacey might in fact be unfindable, or even unreachable, without some help. It was most certainly long after we’d hiked way out to and far down the open, windless beach in the scorching sun.

nude-beach
The Nude Beach and its 16 inch Oasis of Shade.

Thankfully, as we stumbled around, we would soon discover the sweet oasis of the lifeguard’s shack on the edge of the nude beach. The foot and a half of shade it provided gave me just enough relief to keep my sanity, while Michelle hopped on the phone with her people and took care of business.

It was awkward being dressed for March on a summer beach; doubly awkward to be dressed that way on a nude beach; and triply awkward to be hauling a massive 600mm camera lens around such a place, in such conditions. I wasn’t merely worried about the strange and suspicious looks I was getting from all of the naked folks… I was worried about the fact my metal lens and tripod had become scalding to the touch, and how I felt like I was about to spontaneously combust.

bridgette-and-winky
Bridgette. An Angel.

Failing to get a picture of Sandy Hook proper, and even of Tacey herself, is nothing compared to failing to get a picture of Bridgette, our savior; the hero of this story. Thankfully I have this picture above of her from 2016, holding our One And Only Winky.

When Bridgette arrived to meet us at the nude beach, I’m not sure if I was more excited to see Bridgette, who had worked with Michelle back in 2016 and now worked at Sandy Hook caring for endangered animals, or her massive air conditioned truck.

She offered to take us to Tacey, but first we had to check a few nests along the way.

bridgette-salvation
On The Way To Tacey
pipping-egg
Nest Check. Can you see this Piping Plover hatching? Look carefully at the lower right egg. You can see the white cracks in the eggshell (“Starring”) and the small hole (“Pipping”) You can see the tiny PIPL’s black beak with its tiny white “egg tooth” sawing through the egg shell to break free, and discover it was born to live down the shore.
storm
Same as the anticipation built as each nest check brought us closer and closer to Tacey, so did the storm clouds forming over New York City and heading our way.

Once again, I should have checked the forecast. As the the storm clouds grew, and the beach became dark, we would hear the first rumble of thunder. In the intense heat just an hour earlier I had prayed for wind, and for rain. As my wish was about to be granted, I realized it might mean we never actually get to find Tacey.

And that’s right when we found her.

taceys-world
This is what we found.

Earlier this spring, Tacey had just laid two eggs when her nest was exclosed with wire fencing for protection. Apparently she didn’t like that and proceeded to lay her other two eggs outside this exclosure, abandoning the first two. And so her nest was just sitting there in the open dune.

As we approached this scene cautiously in hopes of finding Tacey, instead we saw them: her new family. Her two new babies, not more than a few hours old, snuggled together motionless in the slightly tacky, heart-shaped nest bowl that her new mate had built for her.

And he was there too, defending her new babies, admirably, and bravely trying to fend us off.

I was running back to the truck to grab a different camera lens to get a picture of Tacey’s new babies when Michelle yelled,

Here she comes!!! It’s Tacey! I can see her bands!!!

And indeed, there she was. Scurrying across the sand to join her new mate and see what the trouble was. I’m pretty sure she didn’t recognize either of us. But we sure recognized her.

I suppose I’m not ready, or able, to describe the things I felt upon seeing her. But as it is with the ending to most stories in this life, it was not exactly what I was expecting. It was not polished, nor complete, nor conclusive.

Yet I knew right then and there that I would not be setting up the massive lens I’d been dragging around the hot, naked beach for hours, chasing her down the beach, and rolling around in the sand and the rain to get the perfect picture for this post. I knew right then and there, that was not the story of finding Tacey.

The story of finding Tacey began when I failed to pack my camera bag for a simple visit to Barnegat Light State Park at sunrise.

And so it would end when I failed to get a photo of her.