The Estimate

Captain Jack. Legend of Barnegat Light.

I wish I could say for sure what happened to Captain Jack and mate Myrtle. I wish I knew even just the precise date they actually vanished. But I can’t and I don’t. So the best I can do is guess and estimate.

Beach nesting season along the Jersey Shore is like any other crisis situation. It’s a big mess of seemingly inexhaustible chaos, diverted attentions, and continually unfolding, ever-shifting, mini victories and tiny tragedies which only slowly, over time, take the form of true success or failure.

So the mysterious and worrisome disappearance of Captain Jack & Myrtle right in the middle of this nesting season was not really an event so much as it was something I realized had happened only once it became clear that their perfectly awesome nest had been completely abandoned, and when enough time had passed that it became safe to say they were “never seen again”.

Can you find Jack & Myrtle’s abandoned eggs?

I know for sure I saw Jack during the storm that Sunday. At least I’m pretty sure. And someone else is pretty sure they saw Myrtle after the storm that Tuesday or so. But that is about it. Combining the data with the anecdotal evidence, the best theory is that Jack died and Myrtle tried to keep incubating their nest on her own, until she realized she couldn’t, and then gave up and flew back to the Bahamas. According to Michelle Stantial, observations suggest that if a plover dies “on site” and in the presence of its mate, the mate will abandon almost immediately. If a plover dies while “off site” somewhere and the mate doesn’t know about it, the mate will continue to incubate for as long as possible. So maybe Jack died off site. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

The actual loss of either Jack or Myrtle would be a true tragedy for Barnegat Light as they are one of our most experienced pairs (which makes their disappearance even more puzzling). Yet I’m certainly not about to write their obituaries here. We’ll just have to wait until next spring to see if either of them return. Right now it is still just a mystery; it’s not yet a tragedy and I’m perfectly happy to kick that can down the road as long as possible.

I do feel though that if Myrtle did in fact survive, she would have been seen somewhere by now. But again, I’m going to withhold judgement. Maybe she made a b-line back to the Bahamas. After all, it was Captain Jack’s GPS data which suggested that piping plover might be able to fly for longer over the open ocean than you and I might assume.

So the best we have is just an estimate; an estimate of the timing of the events, the order of events, and even what the events themselves actually were.

Look! Up in the Sky! What’s that smell? It’s Super Stench!

Surviving the beach nesting season in places like New Jersey as a human stan (stalker/fan) is very much what I imagine it was like to be alive in the freezing water while the Titanic went down. There is unimaginable tragedy occurring all around you, but it is never quite able to overwhelm or drown you because you need to keep swimming and helping anyone you can, anywhere you can.

And so it was that no one had much of a chance to linger, endlessly theorizing about the mystery of Jack, Myrtle, and the big void they’d left because that void was almost immediately filled by not one, not two, but by three completely new characters.

On the surface, the events which followed were just the basic, adorable business of piping plovers. Right around the time Jack & Myrtle disappeared, an extremely annoying young male named “Stench” showed up on their turf and started scraping up a storm and searching for a mate. I even once saw Stench walk up to Jack & Myrtle’s abandoned nest and look at their eggs (a fact that will become more important later.) Shorty after, Stench had not been seen for a few days when all of a sudden, out of the blue, the great Jesse Amesbury stumbled upon a new piping plover nest that he wasn’t even necessarily looking for. And right after that, he discovered it belonged to two unbanded piping plovers who had never been seen before, despite almost two months of daily monitoring at Barnegat Light. These two new lovers (later named “Bree Bree” and “Giantsbane”) literally showed up in the middle of the night, right in the middle of the breeding season, and dropped an egg right in the middle of one of the busiest beaches.

Needless to say it was totally unexpected and immediately made everyone busy enough that they could, at least temporarily, move past the mysterious disappearance of Jack & Myrtle.

Jesse uses the NestStory software on his phone to record all of the details of Bree Bree & Bane’s new nest with just a few clicks. NestStory rules!

And while that story itself is interesting enough, Michelle Stantial pointed out a more subtle significance to these events which is almost as fascinating to ponder as Jack & Myrtle’s mysterious disappearance. She asked, “and what would we have thought happened here if these birds were not banded?”

What would we have thought happened here if these birds were not banded?

~ Michelle Stantial

Allow me to demonstrate the significance of her question on a simplified habitat and timeline. Please note, for scale, that the illustrated seagull has a wingspan of approximately 300 feet, and each day represents a couple of days:

Larry & Phoebe and Jack & Myrtle are our two nesting pairs. Total count: 4 plovers all day.
Jack and Myrtle disappear.
Stench arrives. Total count 5 plovers now.
Stench disappears
Bree Bree and Bane show up out of nowhere, right in the middle of all of this, and murderball everyone with a new nest. That makes 7 plovers all day. And 3 pairs.

While the above math seems pretty straightforward, were it not for the bands on these birds, it is almost certain the count of birds for Barnegat Light would have been 4 and not 7, and the count of pairs would have been 2 instead of (the correct) 3. The rapid sequence of the events in the same location would most assuredly have led anyone to believe that Bree Bree and Bane were Myrtle and Jack, and that Stench was also Jack. This would especially be true for me as I actually saw Stench checking on Jack & Myrtle’s eggs after they vanished. It was soul crushing when I actually got a full read of Stench’s bands. For a moment I had been filled with false hope that Jack was still alive and the whole thing had been a big mistake. I was sure it was Jack.

Without those bands, we’d still most likely be trying to figure out why Jack & Myrtle abandoned their perfectly good nest to lay another one right next to it… perhaps falsely assuming that it was because of something someone did (like protecting the nest with a fence, etc.) and altering the future of plover management forever, for no good reason. Who knows?

The known global population of piping plovers is an estimate of the number of breeding pairs. That number is believed to be around 1,700 pairs or so left on the planet. This tiny and unique episode shines some light on the possibility that the estimate could be far more over or under estimated than you might first think.

It is so interesting to consider how many crazy mixups like this are taking place across the coast each season! Most of the population is unbanded, and I doubt many people would consider this scenario to have even been possible. I mean, really… an experienced pair vanishes without a trace and a brand new pair of PIPL instantly show up out of nowhere in the middle of breeding season and drop an egg on the same turf? It’s crazy unbelievable. Even hypothetically it seems like a ridiculous proposition. Yet, we just saw it, and there is no doubt.

While this isn’t really the purpose of Michelle’s banding of piping plovers in New Jersey, observing stuff like this it is certainly a super cool bonus of her work and highlights what a rare opportunity to we have for learning new things about our native animals thanks to her banding.

If nothing else, the story of Jack, Myrtle, Bree Bree, Bane, and Stench, by my estimation anyway, is a great reminder of just how uncertain and mysterious the most obvious looking situations can actually be in reality.

And maybe, just maybe, both Jack & Myrtle are still out there living the dream; their mysterious disappearance easily explained by a very simple, though seemingly unlikely, set of events.

3 thoughts on “The Estimate

Add yours

  1. Godspeed Captain Jack and Myrtle. I hope you two are off living the dream, just not in the Bahamas with hurricane Dorian approaching.

  2. This is enough to make your head spin! I know my head is spinning! But, yes, I have even seen cases of “mistaken identity” and “miscounting” in the much bigger bald eagle world! As usual, your observations and stories are fascinating!

    1. Absolutely. I’m sure this happens with eagle pairs and vaguely recall a few stories of a new mate appearing out of nowhere.

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