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Photo of a small bird running across the sand. Piping Plover Skittering © Budd Titlow

Piping Plover Skittering © Budd Titlow

This Birding Life

By Budd Titlow

Trudging through wind-blown sand, I headed toward what I hoped was the last umbrella on the beach. I hadn’t quite made it when I spotted a potato-sized ball of fluff merrily hopping toward me. Could this really be what I thought it was … or was I just hallucinating in the late spring sunlight?

For many years, I have lugged my camera and telephoto lens along the edges of cordoned off dune and beach habitats. Always closely peering into these sandscapes, I’ve never found what I was hoping to see. But — this past June — everything changed. Looking beyond the solitary piping plover that had first attracted my attention, I saw something I could scarcely believe. The carefully fenced shorebird nesting areas of Ipswich, Massachusetts’ Crane Beach were suddenly alive with both piping plovers and least terns. I was in ecstasy … everywhere I pointed my camera I framed another good shot of these typically hard-to-find species. More than a thousand captures later, I met my daughter and headed back to my room at the Inn at Castle Hill to review my photos and research why things were — in my personal experience — suddenly so different.

While piping plovers and least terns are dramatically different in both appearance and activity, their breeding habitats share strikingly similar characteristics. This explains why they often occur together in the same nesting habitats and are both endowed with special state and federal protection statuses.

Photo of a bird standing on sand. Least Tern Portrait © Budd Titlow

Least Tern Portrait © Budd Titlow

In breeding plumage, the sparrow-sized piping plover features bright orange legs and bill accentuated by big eyes and a sharp black collar. Meanwhile the nesting least tern exhibits a sleek body — built-for aerial derring-do —offset by a handsome black cap, notched across the eye, and a deeply forked tail.

When not on the ground, the least tern is constantly flying, darting this way and that, until suddenly hovering and then dive-bombing a small fish 50 feet below. Think of a miniature osprey and you’ve got the picture. Meanwhile the piping plover is a consummate skitterer, dashing helter-skelter through the dunes and then down into the tidal zone where it plucks tasty morsels for dinner.

Photo of a bird walking across a beach grabbing a small worm in its beak. Piping Plover Feeding © Budd Titlow

Piping Plover Feeding © Budd Titlow

Now for the nesting similarities: both piping plovers and least terns practice extreme simplicity in their domestic abodes. The males of each species make multiple shallow scrapes in the sand — generally away from vegetation — and then let the females choose the sites they like the best. Since camouflage is the goal for protecting both eggs and chicks, the adults typically move bits of shells and small pebbles into and around the nesting scrapes. And that’s it.

While nest construction is quite basic, nest protection is not. Both species eagerly and actively defend their nests from potential intruders. Piping plovers have been known to bite the fingers of interloping humans while least terns have earned the nickname of “little strikers” for their habit of dive-bombing people who come too close.

Photo of a bird sitting in the sand. Least Tern on Nest © Budd Titlow

Least Tern on Nest © Budd Titlow

This brings us to the present and my recent gleeful experience with both of these dynamic little birds on a Massachusetts beach. Why are there now so many of each? The only way I can think to explain it is that both state and federal wildlife agencies are doing an incredible job. Their restrictions on human access to both species’ nesting areas must be really working.  So my hat is way off to all you hard-working biologists and ecologists. Please keep up the great work!

A professional wetland scientist (emeritus) and wildlife biologist, Budd Titlow is also an international/national award-winning nature photographer and a widely published writer. He has authored five natural history books: Coming Full Circle—A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America (in press), Protecting the Planet—Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, Bird Brains—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, Seashells—Jewels from the Ocean, and Rocky Mountain National Park—Beyond Trail Ridge. Titlow has also published more than 500 photo-essays and 5,000 photographs. He is currently using his writing and photography skills to focus public attention on the climate crisis and world-wide biodiversity loss—two of the most serious environmental threats our planet has ever faced.