Of all the complaints you hear in Rockaway in the summer—not enough lifeguards (so that beaches are closed); not enough parking spots (because of nonresidents parking on the street); cops giving people tickets for drinking beer on the beach or for swimming after hours or for surfing at a nonsurfing beach or for not surfing at the surfing beach; that Coney Island gets all the attention while Rockaway gets the drug-crazed and the mentally ill; that there isn’t a movie theatre or a mall or a swimming pool or a ferry or (my personal pet peeve) an Internet café—from one quarter there has been silence: no complaints about piping plovers.
My friend G., having invited herself to the beach, noticed it first. “Where are those little birds that run back and forth?” she asked. It’s true that there weren’t any on the beach that afternoon, but I figured it was just because the beach was crowded and the tide was in and the birds were elsewhere, in Arverne or at Breezy Point. Then there was an article in the Wave about the perennial battle between the piping plovers and the volleyball players (“On the Peninsula It’s a Battle for the Beaches,” by Michelle Romano). The Rockaway Beach Volleyball League, whose members play at Riis Park, have in the past had to move their nets every week to accommodate the piping plovers (rhymes with lovers), which are listed as a “threatened” species; by law, the places where the birds nest and raise their chicks have to be protected. This year, it seemed as if the volleyball players had triumphed: the birds had (in the irresistible idiom) “flown the coop.”
In Rockaway, people take it very personally when a section—their section—of the beach is closed, for whatever reason, but when the reason is those little birds that run back and forth, the most enlightened Rockawayites get all bent out of shape. There are people who hate dunes, in the belief that dunes attract plovers. There is even a bumper sticker: “Piping Plover—Tastes Like Chicken.” The New York Post ran a piece last month about a fragrance launch in Amagansett which featured Land Rovers on the beach and ended with accusations against fashion editors for upsetting the plovers; the article also reported that in East Hampton, for the second year in a row, the Fourth of July fireworks display was cancelled on account of the birds, pitting patriotism against plovers.
The Wave article was admirably balanced and well written, giving lots of space to a cute ranger at Gateway National Park named Dave Taft (I once went on a walking tour led by him). “Not everyone gets to see a piping plover,” he said, in their defense. But it got me worried. I started missing the birds whenever I went to the beach. In the same week’s Wave, I noticed an announcement for Piping Plover Day, sponsored by the Parks Department, at Beach 59th Street, so I rode my bike down there one morning. You hear them before you see them, piping away. I locked up my bike on the boardwalk and was relieved to see a handful of plovers racing along the beach with a pair of skimmers—wonderful black birds with long pointy orange beaks and yellow legs, who whistle at each other out over the water.
A few days later, at sunset, low tide, I went to Fort Tilden to look for plovers. This time, I was overjoyed to have a little flock fly over me while I was in the water. Then last Saturday I went down to my neighborhood beach to take a dip and watch the sunset. Beachgoers and surf were lit up golden; the ocean was full of seaweed, and the waves sloshed in, as green as spinach. And then, there they came: piping plovers on my beach—yes! Their underbellies lit up white as they flew toward the sun, and when they banked and doubled back they disappeared.
Maybe you have to be a native of Rockaway to resent the piping plovers. (There is no danger of my driving an ATV or playing volleyball.) I’ve asked myself how I’d feel if my beach was closed on account of the birds: I came five hundred miles to be by the ocean—I’m not going to mind a couple of extra blocks. When I thought there were no plovers in Rockaway, I felt deprived, as if the summer were ruined—the beach just isn’t the same without them. They are like tiny slapstick comedians, zipping back and forth on their rapid little legs, chasing the waves out, rushing back in, lifting off all at once, at some mysterious signal, and circling out over the water to fly back up the beach and begin again, their flight smooth yet unpredictable, like a ride at Coney Island that makes you slightly dizzy.
When I got home, a neighbor stopped me to say, “Hey, that chick got arrested—you know, the crack whore? The police handcuffed her and took her away.” All day, our local crack whore had sat outside her bungalow with her mother, presiding over a somewhat pathetic yard sale. And now she was in jail, or at least in night court, and her mother would have to bail her out. I was kind of sorry. But I was glad I'd seen the plovers.