We’re The Stupid

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“You builded what, where??!!?”

A very, very common refrain you hear when talking to people on the beaches where Piping Plover are nesting goes something like this:

It’s too bad they (Piping Plover) are so stupid and lay their eggs right in the sand where they’ll get stepped on and eaten. It really seems like they were just not meant to be here. You know… survival of the fittest.

The truth is, that statement couldn’t have it more backwards. Piping Plover are as perfectly adapted to living on the open beach as any creature possibly could be. It is actually we who are terrible at it; it’s we who are “the stupid.” We could actually learn a lot from them.

For the true risk of living on the beach, especially along a barrier island, is flooding. And you won’t find a more flood adapted creature than the Piping Plover. Just like us, the Piping Plover want to be as close to the water as they possibly can be without having their homes damaged and their families put in harm’s way. And while we like to be oceanfront for the spiritual and aesthetic food of the great views and good access to recreation, Piping Plover need to be close to the water to eat. Their food is right along the tideline and they love to eat. A lot. So they want, and actually need, to be as close as possible.

Piping Plover are the masters at reading the beach and finding the sweet spot every summer, building their homes as close to the water as they can without getting flooded. And they build low cost, easily replaceable homes just in case they make a bad call or get overwhelmed by bad luck in the form of ill weather. They build their summer homes by digging tiny impressions in the sand called “scrapes.” If they make a mistake, they can try again. Their biology and timing allow them to try multiple times each season to get it right. Many PIPL families will lose a nest or two early in the season and readjust as they learn the subtleties of their habitats each season. They’ve evolved to have this ability over untold centuries, because, on a long enough timeline, barrier islands are absolutely guaranteed to flood and rejuvenate.

The PIPL have been doing this a lot longer than we have. Flooding is a natural part of a healthy beach and Piping Plover know how to work with this reality. The ecological truth is that barrier islands need to be washed over from time to time to stay strong and healthy. While Hurricane Sandy was a nightmare for most humans because we are so new (and so bad!) at the beach, it was the best thing to happen to Piping Plover in years because they are so well adapted for it. It restored places like Holgate’s habitat with some beautiful washover areas; destroying old vegetation, reviving the substrate with invertebrates, and setting things up for the creation of new dunes. The Piping Plover show us that storms like Sandy are not only expected and normal; they are actually desirable.

It’s we who are the stupid. We are probably the worst flood adapted species on the planet. Hurricane Sandy exposed just how awful we are at it. It exposed how on our bay sides we had removed all of the marsh whose function is to absorb water and act as a flood barrier, while replacing it with low bulkhead which does zero things to help with flooding, and in fact made things so much worse. In many places water now comes pouring over some of these areas in even relatively light rains.

On the oceanside, we’d been raking the beaches for years which prevented dunes from forming, growing, and refreshing. We then snow fenced the old dunes in desperation, trying to just hold them together, but this only makes the problem worse. So now we are stuck trying to do nature’s job by throwing hundreds of millions dollars at erecting fake dunes and fake beaches, which will continue to need to be raked, and rebuilt, in perpetuity. Probably much more frequently than most people had anticipated.

And now we are in a real pickle because we’ve done the most poorly flood adapted thing we could possibly have done: we’ve lined the most likely to flood locations with the most expensive real estate, and built a massive economy and tax base around that poorly planned real estate. The Piping Plover must look at us and laugh. They are the old-timers of the barrier islands. They are wise to the nature of the beach and see what the future holds for us.

It’s probably the wise creature who builds easily replaceable, disposable scrapes along the oceanfront. Not million dollar mansions. Truly, it is we who are the stupid. But we will probably learn. We are quite new here compared to the Piping Plover.

The homebuilding strategy and skill of the Piping Plover is anything but stupid. It’s brilliant, fascinating, and, instructive. The other, human-created risks they face from getting stepped on by us, run over by us, and eaten by the predators we brought here with us, are not evidence of their stupidity… they are evidence of just how little we still understand about the beach, what it is, how it works, how to care for it, how to share it, and most importantly, how to survive here for the long haul. The Piping Plover are the old-timers of the barrier islands. They have the wisdom of experience. We can really learn a lot from them.

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Editor’s Note: We’re old, so it is OK for us to be ignorant about the beach and say embarrassing stuff like Piping Plover are bad at living at the beach. We had a really good run during our first century here with only a couple of decent storms to contend with. According to meteorological history, we haven’t seen a true “big one” since we arrived in the Americas.

But we are handing the next generation some seriously now-frankensteinian barrier islands which will require trillions of dollars to continue to artificially fortify. We need to hand them both the natural paradise and the multi billion dollar economy it supports intelligently. We should make sure these kids really understand what their Islands are and what is at stake for them. You never can learn too much about the beach.

The last generation prospered here by being ignorant about the ecology and biology of the beach… but the next generation will prosper by being knowledgeable and aware of it.

Thank goodness that the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ is doing their big Beach, Birds, and Biology Wildlife Adventure at Barnegat Light again this summer. Twice. July 11th and the 25th. We all love to share the beach with the youngsters. If you know of any fourth through sixth graders who love the beach, sign them up today! It is a great program. I actually have my Junior Biologist badge.

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