Southern Agenda

Egging Them On

Illustration: Tim Bower

Come springtime, Tami Pearl will scour Maryland’s Assateague Island National Seashore, looking for piping plover nests. Some twenty breeding pairs of the petite shorebird—listed as threatened since 1986 because of coastal development and sea level rise—use the island year after year, arriving in March from as far south as the Bahamas to breed and lay eggs. When Pearl, a biological science technician who conducts the island’s annual avian population surveys, finds a nest, she builds a cage around it that lets in the birds but keeps out larger predators until the chicks emerge in May. “When they hatch, they’re like cotton balls on toothpicks,” she says. They leave the nest and roam the dunes and beaches with their parents, perfectly camouflaged and ready to deploy their best defense mechanism—standing dead still—if a parent pipes out a warning call. “One time, I saw a chick freeze mid-run, with one foot still in the air,” Pearl remembers. “And sometimes they dip down in a hoofprint from one of our horses.” To spot a plover on Assateague before they head south, Pearl recommends walking along the water (the interior beach is off-limits during nesting season), binoculars ready, and looking far ahead to see a sand-colored puff speeding off on orange legs.