HARWICH — Access to approximately one-third of the Red River Beach parking lot and sections of the beach will be closed for the month to protect four piping plover chicks which have hatched and are nesting in the adjacent dune.
Town officials were put on notice of Friday by the Massachusetts Audubon Society that the parking lot had to be shut down to protect the piping plover chicks, a state and federally protected species. The birds are considered a locally threatened species, which means they are likely to become endangered, Conservation Administrator Amy Usowski informed selectmen Monday night.
She said Audubon and the state division of fish and wildlife could have closed most of the beach and parking lot, but agreed to narrow the closure to 400 meters around the nest, leaving most of the beach accessible.
On Friday afternoon the town's department of public works was called in to place barriers across the section of the parking lot designated for closure. The decision was made to use concrete jersey barriers because there were concerns wooden barriers could be easily removed.
By law, Usowski said, when chicks hatch the department of fish and wildlife can determine that up to a 1,000 meter area around them needs to be closed off to vehicles. This includes the beach and parking lot area. However, she said the state allowed the area to be decreased to about 400 meters at this location, which covers the east side of the beach and parking area. The majority of the parking area and beach will remain open, Usowski said. There is room for people to walk along the water's edge in the closed section of beach, she added.
It usually takes 30 days for the chicks to fledge, she said, and once they are capable of flying 50 meters or more the restrictions can be lifted. She predicted the beach and parking lot would be open by July 4.
The conservation administrator said that when she talked with Massachusetts Audubon Society personnel about the 1,000 meter restriction, she explained Red River Beach is the town's most popular beach. If the entire beach and parking lot was closed for four to five weeks, “it would have a severe impact on residents of Harwich.” A decision was made to reduce the closed area to 400 meters around the nest, she said.
Mass Audubon has put up symbolic fencing and people are being asked to stay outside the fenced area. A silt fence has also been installed across the openings in the wall that allow access to the beach to prevent the chicks from getting into the parking lot.
Town Administrator Christopher Clark said people have been ripping that fencing out to access the beach. The silt fence is low enough so that people can step over it to access the beach. He cautioned if the removal continues, Mass Audubon could decide to close the entire beach and parking lot under the letter of the law. Usowski said people have also been cutting the twine in the dune area marking the nesting area.
The town will also have to have piping plover monitors on the beach each time machinery is used to clean the beach, Usowski said. The monitors will be required to move ahead of the beach cleaning machine to assure no chicks are in danger. The town hopes to use harbor department funds to pay for the monitors.
“It's more than we can absorb now,” Usowski said of time required of her staff. She pointed out Mass Audubon provides classes for monitoring training and it would be nice if a few volunteers came forward to do the training and help the town out by conducting monitoring.
The town over the past several years has had a contract with Massachusetts Audubon Society to conduct monitoring, but that contract expired this year. Usowski said she and her assistant Nicole Smith have been trained as monitors and will be doing so when possible. The town usually places the cleaning machinery on the beach three times a week, she said. The beach cleaning machinery will not be able to work on the closed section of the beach.
Usowski said there are two other locations along Nantucket Sound with piping plover chick: the Wychmere Harbor Club beach and the town-owned Merkel Beach conservation area, just to the west of the Wychmere Harbor Club. The town does not clean Merkel Beach with machinery. However, the Wychmere Harbor Club does, but less frequently that the town. The club will need to contract with a monitor if it plans to do any beach cleaning in the next month, Usowski said.
“Every time you put a machine on the beach, you need an escort,” Usowski said.