June - Sept 2003
Published August 1st 2003.
This week Janette’s communiqué from the trail addresses a new topic - that of endangered species. In this case, the hikers have had the privilege of a brief encounter with nesting plovers (discussion of pronunciation to follow). Knowing how difficult it is for people to find quiet, undeveloped corners of nature to enjoy, one can easily imagine similar difficulties for the creatures with which we share this earth. The difference is that for people the need to find these wilderness, semi-wilderness or “natural” areas is mostly an emotional or aesthetic one; while for the wildlife the need is often a matter of life or death...
"We have left the Santa Cruz area and are approaching Monterey - two days of mostly beach walking, with an interlude at Moss Landing. The sand has been small grained, densely packed, the ideal texture for a light-footed walker. Mostly the beaches are wide, backed up by low dunes. It is in front of the dunes in the sandy stretches not washed by the summer tide that the plover chooses to lay her eggs. Biologists from the Point Reyes Bird Observatory monitor the plover population, and we have encountered some along the way. We see thin ropes strung along the beaches with notices asking people to stay clear of nesting sites. In highly trafficked areas the nests are enshrouded with wire cages to deter foxes and other predators. Ours is a fast paced journey (don’t laugh, we are really eating up the miles), so we gain snippets of information in brief interludes. But today, two fortunate situations occurred in our favor. The hiking distance was much shorter than usual, about eight miles, so we could indulge our desire to linger. And what a delightful opportunity presented itself. Far down the beach we saw a figure, enshrouded in fog, and gradually we could see a tripod with telescope atop. Jenny Erbes smiled as we approached. Her small figure was clothed for withstanding the cool temperature and wind off the ocean. (It may be more than 100 degrees in the Salinas Valley but here it’s dozens of degrees cooler).
Jenny explained that she is licensed to approach plovers’ nests and briefly pick up hatchlings in order to band them. She is also permitted to bring a couple of people at a time to view the nests, but we must walk in each other’s tracks, and the nest disturbance can last an absolute maximum of twenty minutes.
While waiting turns, we fired up an old discussion, do we pronounce the tiny birds name plo...ver (as in four-leafed clover) or plov...er (as in lover). The biologist we encountered on the beach yesterday said it is customary to say plov...er because plover is an English word and that’s how the English pronounce it. I left the Old Country in 1960, so cannot be much help with this word. I just can’t remember how we said it. Our group is divided, so the discussion goes on. I’ll use plov...er to keep the tradition.
I walk behind Jenny, across the dry, loose sand, avoiding intermittent tufts of vegetation as we proceed to what looks like just another tuft. It turns out to be a slightly raised lump ringed with thin grasses and a little debris, including some narrow strips of purple and pink plastic glitter. In the center are two eggs, speckled in shades of grey and a hatchling of a similar color scheme. The eggs are about an inch long. The hatchling, with down all fluffed up would be about the size of a woman’s thumb. The chicks use and ‘egg tooth’ (attached to the end of their beaks) to fracture the egg shell and gain access to their new world. The egg tooth drops off a few hours after the chicks have hatched. The hatchling we saw still had the egg tooth in place. It was a very small white triangle (sea turtles also use egg teeth).
Jenny shows us where, earlier in the morning she has banded one tiny leg with a red and yellow tag, denoting the location of the bird’s birth. For the rest of the day Jenny will observe through her telescope, this nest, and a few others along this stretch of coastline, so she can band each hatchling. We learn that the plover, like so many other creatures, return to the specific places of their birth. One biologist has watched the male plover he banded nine years ago return to the some place on the sand to nest, but not with the same female. That is because the pair will take turns incubating the eggs, but once hatched the female leaves to seek a new breeding opportunity and the male remains to care for the hatchlings for 28 days until they officially become fledglings and are on their own.
This encounter is a reminder of how fragile life can be. Birds are reluctant to return to areas after development has occurred, so their breeding habits are much disturbed. Actively enhancing unobstructed breeding areas is helping this highly endangered bird species. Jenny speaks with enthusiasm of 250 plovers in the Monterey Bay area. I feel privileged to have witnessed so rare a sight and my heart is warmed to know that others can see hope where I would see something closer to hopeless. May more Jenny’s flourish in the world; we surely will all be rewarded.”
Janette has let me know that she “thinks” her next installment may be about sea walls and erosion, but that remains to be seen. Our priorities are so easily changed by new information or unexpected events, and often for the better, that to set them in stone would be like shopping with someone else’s list. It is not so important to acquire a bunch of items as it is to acquire items that will be meaningful and useful to the consumer. One thing is certain - whether Janette focuses on sea wails and erosion or on another topic entirely, it will be a topic of immediate concern and interest to Janette and hopefully to our readers as well.