Birds vs. beachgoers

While piping plovers are nesting on Duxbury Beach, Sophie Dubuisson acts as a bird monitor, keeping people away from the threatened species.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
While piping plovers are nesting on Duxbury Beach, Sophie Dubuisson acts as a bird monitor, keeping people away from the threatened species.

Bundled in sweats and sunglasses, Sophie Dubuisson sits with her toes in the sand on a chilly, overcast day. The salty air is sticky, promising rain.

It is her second week on the job, and her red-and-blue-striped beach chair is perched on the edge of a roped-off area — one of two large swaths of Duxbury Beach closed to the public to allow a flock of endangered shorebirds to nest.

Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff
Mike Pforr, endangered species officer with Duxbury’s Harbormaster Department, patrols along Duxbury Beach, where signs restrict access to piping plover nesting areas.

Her job: bird monitor for piping plovers, which are classified as threatened on the state and federal endangered species lists.


Closures on Duxbury Beach are nothing new.

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“It’s a historical nesting site,’’ said Mike Pforr, the endangered species officer for the Duxbury Harbormaster Department. “They’re as natural out here as the sand and water.”

This year, however, unusual beach conditions after the winter storms have led to an exceptionally high number of nesting pairs, leading to wider closures. The drive-on portion of the beach is closed to vehicles, possibly until July 15, much to the chagrin of residents and nonresidents who doled out $160 and $295, respectively, for stickers to park on the sand.

“This is an economic blow to the town, but it’s also a quality-of-life blow to the people that live here and the people that come from out of town,” resident Paul Driscoll said at a selectmen’s meeting last Monday.

But according to Pforr, monitors like Dubuisson — who has been the target of some condescending remarks and a few obscene gestures — are the reason the beach can stay open at all.


This particular morning, Dubuisson woke up just after 6 a.m. to get to her post by 7. After checking her phone to see to which spot she was assigned, she went to the beach to make the first of her rounds, one of many she will make each half-hour throughout her seven-hour shift.

Armed with a notebook and binoculars, she documented the birds’ activity — a nesting pair and their three chicks — where they are, if they are eating, if they are moving around, if they are disturbed, if they are just resting, and weather conditions.

Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff
While piping plovers (left) are nesting on Duxbury Beach, a bird monitoring program has been instituted to protect them.

Beach walkers are allowed to pass through the blocked-off areas as long as their steps hug the shoreline and they keep away from the birds. Dubuisson’s post partway down the walk is on a part of the beach that has a clear view of the drive-on portion, which on a typical summer day sees cars packed side by side, with families set up for the day or gathered round a fire pit at night roasting marshmallows.

This morning, though, there were just a few beach strollers — and it was hard to say if the change was eerie or peaceful.

Dubuisson, who will be a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin in the fall, has no special interest in ecology or conservation, but learned about the job through friends.


“I mean, I like nature, but it’s more of just a summer job,” she said.

‘We try to strike the delicate balance between access and protection.’

The summer gig pays minimum wage; unofficial benefits include golden tan lines after hours in the sun and a low-stress work environment.

“I think it will be nicer when it actually is sunny out and like a beach day,” she said. “My friends will come visit and we can just sit, and it’s like a normal beach day for the most part, except for me getting up a few times and telling people they can’t do certain things.”

But once the weather warms up and crowds increase, she said, “it will be hard to keep people from wandering off into the blocked-off areas.”

The birds’ threatened status — resulting from a combination of disappearing habitat and a rising sea level — triggers a set of federal guidelines, but the town mainly follows those set by the state (which are much less strict) for the nesting season, from April 15 to Sept. 15.

This mainly entails blocking off areas within 200 yards of nests. Though plovers nest all along the East Coast, Duxbury’s situation is complicated by a road running through the 4 miles of barrier beach leased by the town.

Sue MacCallum, director of Mass Audubon’s South Shore Sanctuaries, said that while other towns, including Scituate and Marshfield, protect plovers with fencing and signs, the beach road in Duxbury requires additional management.

“It’s a whole other set of regulations because of the opportunities for an incident are increased as are the levels of management,” MacCallum said. “We do monitor at other beaches, but not the same level and intensity as at Duxbury.”

At Duxbury, the birds are monitored during all daylight hours from the time pairs nest until the three to four baby plovers per nest fledge (defined as when a bird can fly 50 yards on its own or 35 days after it hatches, whichever comes first).

Until chicks can fly, their only defense is camouflage, making them susceptible to such predators as sea gulls and coyotes, as well as to exposure and extreme tidal conditions.

The management plan, a collaboration between the town, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, and the Duxbury Beach Reservation, from which the town leases the beach, enables the beach to stay open.

“Close, intensive monitoring allows us to maintain open areas,” Pforr said. “We try to strike the delicate balance between access and protection. This year, based on nest location, there’s less I can do about access as opposed to protection.”

According to Pforr, the winter storms pulled sand from the dunes onto the beach, creating an ideal habitat of soft sand mixed with cobble. The result is a reported 18 nesting pairs, compared with a yearly average of 11 to 13.

“I think the most important thing for people to know that we understand we don’t want to close the beach. My position is to maintain access for residents and other permit holders,” Pforr said, pointing out that Duxbury is one of very few beaches where motor vehicles are allowed on the sand with an endangered species.

Dubuisson also sees the delicate nature of her job.

“I know [the plovers are] small and we do block off a big part of the beach for them, but I would feel guilty if they were all killed off just because people want to drive their big SUVs on the beach,” Dubuisson said. “The birds were here first. It’s not technically our beach — it’s theirs. I feel it’s important for us to protect them.”

But many in town feel differently, especially since the beach was closed to vehicles June 7.

The Facebook page “Duxbury Advocates,” demanding further explanation from the town, gathered more than 5,000 likes. Its creator, resident Bruce Fenton, also delivered a letter to Town Manager René Read.

Read delivered a response letter to Fenton and read excerpts from it at the selectmen’s meeting Monday. He announced that those who purchased beach permits on or before June 3 can apply for a full refund through June 28.

But that did not satisfy some at the meeting, including Driscoll.

“The attitude I hear tonight is that there’s nothing we can do about this in the short order now and in the long order in the future — I don’t think that’s so,” he said. “There has to be a balancing of the interests here.”

His statements drew applause from the crowd.

For his part, harbormaster Don Beers said he is shocked that closures like this have never happened before.

“It takes four nests in Duxbury to bring us to our knees,” he said.

Anne M. Steele can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AnneMarieSteele.