Nature Connection: A Day At The Beach

by Mary Richardson

Beach walks this spring have tended to be on the damp and windy side, making them cold and often uncomfortable. Having a warm, sunny day to take a leisurely walk along the shore recently was lovely, reminding us that summer really is around the corner.

The rosa rugosas, commonly called beach roses, are in full bloom now in their full array of colors, white, pale pink, and rosy pink. Beach peas are also blooming, though their light violet blossoms are less assertive than those of the roses. Like all peas they have a trailing habit and are found low to the ground. I love their sweet scent and delicate flowers, though I leave the tiny peas themselves for the rabbits.

On this day the tide was out, and several other beach walkers were hunting for shells. One of the beaches I frequent all year is a hotspot for shell collectors, especially after a good full moon tide or windstorm, and this day was a combination of both.

The fencing was up in the usual spots for the piping plovers and least terns. As we walked along the damp sand admiring the sparkles on the sea all around us, we heard the call of a plover and stopped walking. Right in front of us there was a bit of movement and as I adjusted my eyes to look closely at the sand, I could see that there was a tiny baby plover only a few feet from us. As I broadened my search, I found an adult and another baby.

Baby piping plovers are precocial, meaning they are born ready to move, unlike their songbird cousins which are altricial, born featherless, blind, and helpless. The ones we saw had to have been no more than a day old. They were the size of ping pong balls and looked like fluffy cotton balls on toothpicks. Mom was frantically herding them to safety before returning her attention to us, attempting to draw us away from her young.

Plovers are among the birds that fake illness or injury to get the attention of potential predators. This distraction allows for their young to escape and hide. We told mama we’d be happy to follow her, and we hoped her little family would survive in this less than hospitable spot.

The beach these plovers nested on is a busy beach for walkers, sunbathers, windsurfers, and those who love to dig for shellfish or fish from the shore. Each year it is a challenge for these plucky birds, and often none of the young make it to adulthood, though occasionally a few make it at least to the flying stage. Crows, coyotes, dogs, and people all make survival difficult. If I hadn’t had some awareness of the plover call, I may not have stopped and may have stepped on the tiny baby that was running to the water’s edge, away from the safety of the fencing. Plover chicks are extremely small and well camouflaged and unless you know what to look for you may walk right by without noticing them.

The least terns used to nest by the hundreds on this beach, but time and erosion have washed their favorite spots out to sea. Some terns have moved to a small sandbar turned island across the channel, but a few dozen still nest in the dune areas. Least terns, like the piping plovers, are endangered. They are small, only about six inches long, but feisty and vocal. The ones we saw were actively courting, presenting each other with shiny fish as tokens of their intentions.

A lone willet stood at the water’s edge, but we could hear another close by. It rose into the air, flashing its black and white wings as it did so.

A little farther along our way an American oystercatcher flew over the dunes and almost landed right in front of us. It banked when it realized its mistake and we watched it call and fly about before landing about 50 yards down the beach. I love oystercatchers. They are unmistakable with their big red beak that yes, really can open an oyster, pink legs and red and yellow eyes glowing in what appears to be a black hood on their head. It’s not of course, but that dark head against the brown back and white chest make a bold statement. Oystercatchers are large shorebirds, sort of chunky rather than sleek, and their calls can make you smile. They are nothing if not distinctive. They nest here in small numbers, but if you have one in the area, you’ll know.

As we walked back to the car, we could hear the ospreys calling from their nest nearby. The scent of the roses filled the air and the sea glittered invitingly while a song sparrow serenaded from a storm bent tree.

The harbors are once again filling with boats and the roads are busy with visitors and returning snowbirds. Summer is on her way. These are the days when locals can enjoy the beaches before the crowds arrive. I love seeing people enjoy our shores, but I also love these days before all the mayhem begins. Happy June!