Want to see a black-bellied plover?

  • This black-bellied plover found a worm hiding in sand exposed at low tide. The bird gathered up its prey and ran over to a small pool to wash the sand off its meal.  BILL DANIELSON

  • The black-bellied plover is the largest plover.  BILL DANIELSON

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 9/6/2018 1:01:50 PM

I was on Cape Cod, I was up early, and I was visiting a remarkable place called First Encounter Beach. Fortunately, I found myself in the unusual position of having my movements governed by the moon, instead of the sun.

Had I been at home, I would certainly have been interested in the concept of dawn and first light. At First Encounter Beach, however, I was only interested in the concept of low tide, which, on this particular day, meant that “early” was a more civilized 8:30 a.m.

If you’ve never been there, First Encounter Beach really is amazing. Located in the town of Eastham, First Encounter Beach is a bayside beach. Take your left arm, ball up your fist and “make a muscle.” This is the universal generic model for the shape of Cape Cod and you might be surprised how many times you see different people do this if you sit back and watch.

Your biceps muscles represent towns like Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis and Brewster. The center of your triceps muscles represent Hyannis. The inside bend of your elbow represents the town of Orleans and just above that, on the part of your forearm that is facing you, is the area known as First Encounter Beach in the town of Eastham. One of the most sheltered spots on the cape, this area is known for its low tides.

If you were to arrive at First Encounter Beach at high tide, you’d never know what lay under the surface. By the time low tide arrives, you might wonder where the water is. In the absence of water, there is a gorgeous sand flat that is a pure delight for anyone who likes to do a little beach combing. This, as it happens, is also a particularly attractive situation for hungry shorebirds who are looking for something to eat.

Because I arrived at low tide, I had to walk a bit simply to get out to the edge of the water. I can’t really estimate distances like this very well, but I’d say it was at least three football fields. I couldn’t really see anything that resembled a bird from the place where I left my shoes, but gradually, as I made my way out, I started to pick up on the little shapes that I was looking for. Nature did not fail me.

In August and September, the birds that I most often see at First Encounter Beach are semipalmated plovers, least sandpipers, semipalmated sandpipers and lesser yellowlegs. One might also see the odd ruddy turnstone here and there, but they are never too common in my experience. More likely would be a small group of willets, and if you’re lucky, you might even see two or three short-billed dowitchers out on the sand.

If you’re really lucky, there’s another species you might spot. This is a bird called a black-bellied plover (Pluvalis dominica) and it is remarkable for its plumage. Most birds will have a color scheme that has darker colors on the head and back with a lighter color on throat, breast and belly. The black-bellied plover shows the opposite coloration and it is really easy to pick one of these birds out of a crowd. What isn’t easy, as it turns out, is getting close to one of them.

If you spend enough time in their company, most of the species that I’ve mentioned above will settle down and “accept” you. This means that you might be able to get within 70 feet of them, and occasionally a particularly mellow individual may come to within 40 feet. For a photographer, this is pure gold. Black-bellied plovers are not the accepting sort and try as I might, I could not get any closer than about 100 feet. Also, I noticed that this bird always tried to keep its back to me, but things changed when it finally found something edible hiding in the sand.

The plover paused and probed with its short beak. Then, it gave a great heave and up came a large worm. This creature was reluctant to be removed from its den, but the bird was too strong. One great pull after another extracted more and more worm from the ground, like a long piece of taffy being pulled and stretched, and this gave me a chance to close the distance between us. Eventually the bird had the entire thing out of its hiding place.

The ground the plover was standing on was free of any puddles, so the bird gathered up its prize and made haste toward a shallow pool that hadn’t quite drained away when the water receded. This, it turns out, was something the bird did to try and wash its meal. There was a lot of biting and head twisting, a lot of sloshing back and forth in the water, and then, quick as you please, the worm was swallowed. I imagine the plover enjoyed this as much as I would have enjoyed a fresh oyster. Delicious!

Black-bellied plovers are breeders of the High Arctic and they can only be found on Cape Cod for a brief period in the spring and a somewhat longer period in late summer and early fall. If you would like to see a black-bellied plover for yourself, and I would highly recommend this, you simply have to get yourself out to the cape before the end of October. Find a tide chart, go to First Encounter Beach as the tide is receding and you might just spot one of these beautiful birds for yourself. Just remember to bring binoculars and leave your shoes.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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