On The Fence

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The Great AMOY Takeover

This could be your last warning. Though I’m pretty sure it’s also your first.

The American Oystercatchers are taking over. They are taking over our beaches just as the robots are taking over our jobs. Only more adorably, and much more noisily.

If things don’t change, and soon, this could be the first summer in a long while when the nesting American Oystercatcher outnumber the nesting Piping Plover along the front beaches of LBI.

Personally, I’m on the fence about this… for a couple of reasons.

PIPL and AMOY are both native beach nesting birds and they both like, more or less, the same types of habitat. They share the same struggles, and have the same itty-bitty hopes and dreams. Yet this can go either way as it both puts them in direct competition with each other for the few tiny spaces left on Long Beach Island, yet, on the other hand, also gives them some shared strength and specific opportunities for cooperation. If they can somehow manage to spread themselves out just right and create respectable boundaries in their neighborhoods, they can potentially be useful neighbors and allies. They can team up to distract and to fight off predators like crows and gulls. They can alarm each other about threats.

But competition can be fierce. AMOY have an extreme size and strength advantage so can seriously injure a PIPL if they wind up fighting with each other for turf. AMOY are known to push PIPL, sometimes violently, out of their territories, even going so far as to destroy their nests. This a problem because PIPL are technically “more endangered” than AMOY. AMOY aren’t even endangered; they are merely “threatened.” While that smacks of “some animals are more equal than others,” that fact does count for something, especially when it comes to deploying the limited resources available to protect our disappearing beach nesters.

The prospect of losing just a single PIPL nest to an AMOY family is especially worrisome, considering we have only two or three nests most seasons. It could cut our gross count of babies in half.

Yet still, I’m on the fence on this, because of… the fence.

I’m playing a long game with regards to partially fencing the beaches of LBI permanently to preserve our chances of survival here. I’ll tell it to you straight: I am 100% certain that it is in our collective best interest to completely end beach raking on the Island and also to fence off about half the width of the beach, from the dune to about halfway to the water, Island wide, from Holgate to Barnegat Light. It is the single most important, simplest, and most cost-efficient thing we can do to protect the Island and the enormous economy it supports. It is the only way dunes can form, grow, replenish, and protect. And now that we’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars building an artificial dune wall, we have an added and more urgent opportunity and responsibility to encourage the formation of natural dunes in front of it to strengthen and protect the wall, and also to create sand reserves to keep the beaches from getting eaten clean away below the artificial wall.

I realize that statement is a lot to digest, and might sound shocking to some people. I also didn’t really understand the real science of dune formation until I had spent years undercover studying coastal scientists. I would have never believed in a million years that our dune problems were most entirely self created by our willful disregard of the most important, most simple, and most powerful natural process on a barrier island. I would have never believed we already knew everything, but chose to ignore the reality for very little actual benefit to us. But it is true. The beach already worked. We just broke it, and somewhat pointlessly.

I hope one day to do some more visual and explanatory stories about how wrongly we use the beach in regards to the dune formation and protection through our raking and trampling of the upper beach. I believe many folks will have the same “Wait? What? Aha!” moment that I did as the simple science of it all becomes crystal clear, and our unnecessary violation of those basic rules has led to unnecessary risk and at times, catastrophe. But for now, indulge me and accept, or at least suspend disbelief to accept, that:

1.) Healthy dunes are critical to our future here.

2.) Dunes are a natural phenomenon and they form, grow, and develop dynamically when the process is not disturbed.

3.) The dune and the beach are single, inter-related entity, and need to be managed and protected by us when we use the beaches for fun and profit, if we want them to last.

People often ask me sincerely why I care at all about the beach nesting birds, and more importantly, why they should. Personally, I have a lot of reasons which span the full spectrum. From the more abstract and ethical, like, they have a right to exist, we have an inherent responsibility to respect those rights, and not to harm living things unnecessarily, we hurt them so we should help them, they were here first, and on and on. I also just happen to think they are adorable, funny, and cool.

But more practically, and persuasively, I believe that when the native animals are failing because of our activities that we are probably setting up our own failure as well, in ways perhaps we do not yet see. A healthy animal population implies a healthy coast and the opposite is true as well. We are self-interested to see them thrive. They reflect the quality, wisdom, and sustainability of our stewardship. Their survival and condition here foreshadows our own.

The Piping Plover already serve this function somewhat, by providing a focal point for taking action. When specific efforts are made to protect species like Piping Plover, Osprey, or American Oystercatcher, lots of progress can also be made on other, related ecological fronts at the same time. Because the health of any animal at the beach is dependent on so many dynamic factors, which in turn also help us, these focused efforts inspire broader efforts to, for example, reduce trash, improve water quality, manage predators,  and mange fish and invertebrate populations, just to name a few. And in the case of the Piping Plover and other beach nesting birds, efforts to help them also help mitigate our greatest personal and immediate threat here: flooding. Because it just so happens that our front-beach beach nesters love the places where natural dune forming processes are actively taking place.

When you protect beach nesting habitat, you automatically encourage stronger dunes.

The trouble with using the Piping Plover as the ambassadors who will trick us back into using common sense to protect our own homes is that too many people believe they hate the Piping Plover. Like “immigrant” or “tax cut,” “Piping Plover” is a loaded term; it carries a ton of political and social baggage. The PIPL have caused so many fights for so long, we no longer even see the bird when we hear the term; we see (or so we think) the entire disposition, belief system, values, and attitudes of whoever just used the term. Mentioning them is a barrier to dialogue, and an inspiration to argue. “Piping Plover…?” Them’s fighting words!

But the American Oystercatcher carries no such heavy baggage. There are no T-shirts or bumper stickers which read “Oystercatchers taste like chicken!” as there are for Piping Plover. They have a clean slate. “Protect The Oystercatcher, And Save The Dunes!” is something folks on the beach might actually get behind if put out in the right way and with the right context.

And even better, and unlike the tiny, camouflaged Piping Plover, you can actually see the American Oystercatcher struggling for survival inside of those fenced, protected areas. When people trespass, or bring their dogs too close, they can actually see (and hear!) these large, high contrast, colorful, awkward, noisy animals running around in panic. We can see our own cruelty directly, and directly observe why they need those fences.

And very few people on the beach actually want to be cruel. They just don’t see it. Yet when they do, their compassion is inspired and they usually turn almost instantly from a problem to an advocate. And once a community starts to protect them, they can come to enjoy them. Because all it takes is a little involvement to discover that these animals are not a burden; they are a gift.

And so it is that I’m on the fence about the American Oystercatcher takeover. While I surely don’t want them messing up our PIPL, I do see an opportunity for people to get behind their protection and support the beach fencing and protected areas more consciously and with greater enthusiasm.

I have a lot of money at risk on the Island, and I need my home protected. Fencing the upper beach to allow for natural dune formation is an agreeable goal. We can let restoration and recovery of our native animals be a bonus. It doesn’t matter. We all win, either way.

A lot of management folks who know me would be surprised by this Reading. That’s because traditionally I have been a vocal advocate for minimizing the impact of fencing whenever possible. But that is only because I am playing a long game. I guess I just want to reduce confrontation and conflict over fencing in the community as a part of the longer path leading towards covering the entire Island with it, permanently.

As a homeowner and avid beach bum, I understand instinctively how offensive a fence, however subtle and delicate, truly is. When we spend a small fortune for a tiny piece of the Island, implied in the price is a massive beach playground, unencumbered and free. For the call of the beach truly is freedom. Fences don’t feel like freedom, and I truly believe that is what bothers us most, deep down.

Yet that is a subtle, abstract, and ultimately small point. Our homes and business, on the other had, are very real. And the truth is, we really don’t use the upper beach anyway. If you don’t believe me, I’ll head down to the beach right now to take a picture. We already know what the picture will demonstrate: all of the families pressed up against each other near the water, and a massive, useless desert up above where dunes should be forming and birds should be nesting. Good for little but garbage cans, and maybe to throw the frisbee. Yet we can easily create spaces for those uses, without throwing away our entire dune system.

I’m on the fence about the American Oystercatcher takeover this season. But only because I’m not on the fence at all regarding the wisdom of ending the beach-as-sandbox approach and instead helping to encourage the Island’s natural processes to lengthen my time here to enjoy it!

The fence, it’s our future. A small touch of freedom, our sacrifice. Healthy dunes and wildlife, our measurement of progress. A more secure, and enjoyable future here, our reward.

Let’s take a fresh look at how we’re living. Let’s bring the beach back to life!

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