Friday, July 01, 2005

ENV: And of course Piping Plovers are . . .

. . . out to get humans and all they build . . .

Clash of Beach-Nesting Species: Plover and Human
By PAUL VITELLO, July 2, 2005, The New York Times


EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. - Of the migrating species, the piping plover is one of those listed by federal conservationists as "threatened," while humans with beach houses, to judge from current demographic trends, are thriving beyond measure.

The plover flies up from the Gulf of Mexico in late March, mates, and begins nesting just above the high tide line of the ocean beaches here. The humans arrive in late May, spend roughly a month settling into their beach homes, then begin their party season. To coincide with local fireworks displays, the season usually begins with a big bash on the Fourth of July.

The two species - one fit and ascending, the other misfit and in decline on Darwin's scale - coexisted in amity for many seasons until this year, when the discovery of 34 active nests of the endangered plovers led village officials to cancel their traditional fireworks show at the beach.
Some people who had planned grand parties, complete with a pyrotechnic climax in the night sky over the sea, were disappointed.

Jerry Della Femina, a beach house owner who had already invited 500 people to his Fourth of July party when the fireworks were canceled, had little compassion for the birds. "You know why the plovers are endangered?" he asked. "Because everyone hates them."

His viewpoint is not the only one among the people here. But because he is an outspoken former ad man (his ad creations include the meretricious "Joe Isuzu" and the unforgettable singing cat of Purina's Meow Mix cat food) and because he owns a local weekly newspaper, it has become a dominant one.
"No one wants to hurt the plovers," Mr. Della Femina wrote in a column in his paper, The Independent, to which he added a recipe for fried piping plover with garlic. "But has anyone thought that maybe the little bastards have reached the end of the line and they are going to die?"

There is general disappointment over the cancellation of the fireworks, to be sure. But interspecies triumphalism of this sort makes a lot of people wince. "I adore Jerry, but he's really the only one making a fuss," said Maria Van, executive director of the chamber of commerce. "Everyone I talk to says they're happy that someone cares about the plovers. Or they say, 'Oh, that's so cute. Oh, that's so East Hampton.' "

The plovers are, in point of fact, cute. The adults are palm-size, the chicks baby-palm-size, and their sand-colored plumage makes them virtually invisible in their herky-jerky forays on the beach in search of insects to eat.

With camouflage their only defense against predators, they are probably the species most unlike the advertising man subgroup of humanity represented by Mr. Della Femina, with its love of attention, star power, hubbub.

To see a plover, you have to try hard - even use binoculars. "If you don't fence off the nesting areas, people run them over in their trucks; they just don't see them," said Latisha Coy, one of two Town of East Hampton environmental technicians whose plover census led to the fireworks kibosh.

Since closing off the nesting areas last month with snow fencing (to keep out vehicles and dogs, but not people), Ms. Coy and her co-worker, Dawn Wiley, have spent most of their time repairing the same fences. "People just drive over them," Ms. Wiley said. "They think it's a joke."

It is true that some pickup trucks and other vehicles in town display bumper stickers that say, "Plovers Make Good Traction." Some fishermen and surfers are said to resent not being allowed to drive on the beach. And among people interviewed at random on Main Street recently, one did say he was angry at the town for denying him a building permit to extend his driveway because of the plovers. "I believe in conservation to a certain extent, but that is ridiculous," said the man, who would not give his name, "in case I ever want to ask for something else" from town officials.

"Yes, there is a certain tension" between the human population and the plovers of East Hampton, said David E. Rattray, editor of his family-owned East Hampton Star newspaper, which next week features a letter from a bird-lover who offers a recipe for "roasted ad-man," said, "Yes, there is a certain tension" between the human population and the plovers of East Hampton.

"But for the most part it is a tongue-in-cheek tension," he added.

Not according to Mr. Della Femina and his wife, Judy Licht. "We're the only ones who will talk about it," Ms. Licht said. "But everyone feels the same. It's political correctness in the extreme, and it's ridiculous. Everybody says so."

In places like East Hampton, the term "everybody" sometimes means everybody and sometimes refers to a more select group, and it was impossible to reach all those in either sense of the word.

But in interviews, several people who live nearby said they were soldiering on with their parties and were not upset.

"We're disappointed, but I really don't think it's a big deal," said Ellen Jacobs, who lives several doors and dunes away from Mr. Della Femina. "We're having people over. We'll probably go to the beach."

Without the fireworks this year, she said, "Maybe we'll watch the piping plovers."

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