American oystercatchers (photo: Libby Buck)

These days, it seems like everything we took for granted as normal is getting cancelled, closed or postponed due to COVID-19. From a socio-economic perspective, it is apparent that this coming summer will be nothing like recent seasons here on Nantucket.

For those of us who love nature and the outdoors, the ongoing rhythm of the seasons has been a welcome exception to all of these dramatic changes. Despite the havoc that COVID-19 has caused in our daily lives, early spring flowers are still blooming, tree buds are swelling and getting ready to leaf-out, the spring peepers are calling and many species of birds are migrating back to our island.

Piping plover (photo: Vernon Laux)

Recent arrivals include our beach nesting shorebirds. Right on schedule, piping plovers and American oystercatchers showed up in mid-March after spending their winter in the southern U.S., Caribbean and Central America. Soon to follow in early May will be the least and common terns, along with a few other tern species that stop by Nantucket on their way to somewhere else.

American oystercatcher nest (photo: Danielle O’Dell)

These beach nesting birds literally spend their breeding season living on the edge: courting, nesting and raising their chicks at the interface between land and sea. This is a precarious place- on the beach, they are exposed and vulnerable to high tides, storms, extreme wind, temperatures (both hot and cold) and predators such as gulls and crows. Disturbance from humans and unleashed dogs are also huge limiting factors for these species, all of which are experiencing population declines and designated as rare or endangered in some manner.

Piping plover with egg (photo: Libby Buck)

Piping plovers and American oystercatchers are already setting up breeding territories and courting on the Foundation’s beachfront properties – we expect the arrival of the first eggs of the season any day now. Nests of these species consist of a shallow scrape in the sand, sometimes decorated with small pebbles and shells. Their eggs are extremely well camouflaged to blend in with the surrounding sand and are therefore difficult to see. The chicks of these species hatch out in about 3 weeks after egg laying and they are also cryptically colored to blend in with their beachfront home.

Protection and monitoring efforts for these rare species are considered “essential” work under the Town of Nantucket’s Stay At Home Order. Therefore, our staff are out looking for breeding pairs and nests and installing fencing and signage on Foundation’s properties where they have nested in previous years, including Eel Point, Capaum Pond, the Nantucket Field Station, Polpis Harbor, the Haulover and Coatue.

Sign: Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative (

We are working hard to protect the nesting efforts of our feathered beach residents so that they can coexist with visitors to our beaches. We encourage the public to get out and responsibly enjoy our properties, and have seen a huge increase in visitors since the Stay At Home Order was issued. If you see fencing and signage, you can help us out during this difficult time by please respecting these areas. We ask that you please follow these simple practices:

  • Stay outside of all posted and fenced nesting areas.
  • Keep your dog leashed at all times when near shorebird nesting areas- or better yet, leave it at home. Even leashed dogs can cause stress and nest abandonment.
  • Do not leave litter or food on the beach- it attracts predators such as crows, gulls and rats.
  • Please do not fly kites near nesting shorebird sites- from a shorebird’s perspective, they resemble birds of prey.
  • If you are on a beach where there is no fencing or signage and observe birds exhibiting distressed behavior (such as excessive alarm calling or feigning a broken wing), there is likely a nest nearby that has not yet been discovered by monitors. Please leave the area by walking along the water’s edge below the high tide line (to avoid disturbing the nest) and notify the property owner so that the site can be fenced and protected.
  • If you encounter flocks of birds resting along the beach, please avoid “flushing” or disturbing them – they need their rest to prepare for the breeding season after feeding and travelling a long distance from their winter grounds.
A piping plover doing a “broken wing display” to draw attention away from its nest (photo: Libby Buck)

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation has been proud to keep all of our conservation properties open to the public from sunrise to sunset for responsible use during this pandemic (with the exception of Coatue, which remains closed due to public safety concerns). We realize that getting outside while practicing safe social distancing is a welcome and healthy way to enjoy nature, get some fresh air and maintain mental well-being during stressful times like these.

Facebook post: Atlantic Coast Joint Venture

We encourage you to enjoy the Foundation’s beachfront properties while respecting our fencing and signs so that these rare and beautiful birds can have a successful nesting season.

Stay safe, stay healthy everyone!!

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now!