Out of America: Piping plover gives an island resort the bird

NANTUCKET - Outwardly, it was a pretty standard Fourth of July here in what was once the whaling capital of the world, now a classy and hauntingly beautiful island resort 30 miles south of Cape Cod. The fire brigade held its water-hose contest. On Main Street there were blueberry pie and watermelon eating competitions, before the traditional firework show on Jetties Beach on the edge of Nantucket town. But this year, for all the fun, there was a whiff of trouble in paradise. The cause? A small and very rare wading bird called the piping plover.

The fuss started a few weeks ago, when 10 plover pairs were discovered to be nesting on two of the island's prime fishing beaches. To the untrained eye, a piping plover is nothing much to look at. But they enjoy the protection of one of the most fearsome laws ever passed by Congress, the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Plovers, to put it mildly, are off-limits. The fine for deliberately killing one runs from dollars 35,000 to dollars 120,000 ( pounds 23,000 to pounds 78,500), and everything possible must be done to safeguard their young. Alas, plovers make their nests not in trees but on the ground. For six weeks the fluffy little chicks are unable to fly. Defenceless on the sand, they are protected only by their camouflage - fine for avoiding animal predators but not much use for getting out of the way of human feet, car wheels, not to mention dune buggies and the like. And so, until mid-August at least, the beaches could be closed, at the very height of the holiday season.

Now plover-related problems are not new around these parts: a couple of summers ago repair work on one of America's most ghoulish national monuments, the bridge at Chappaquiddick on the neighbouring island of Martha's Vineyard, came shuddering to a halt when a pair of plovers set up shop near the spot where Mary-Jo Kopechne drowned in July 1969. Senator Edward Kennedy was driving the car, and the accident ended his chances of ever becoming president. Since then, souvenir hunters had stolen so many bits of the bridge it had become unsafe. But its plight was to the plover chicks what the logging industry of the Pacific Northwest was to the ESA-protected spotted owl. And now in Nantucket, the Act has struck again. Once again rare and obscure birds are threatening human livelihoods - this time in the all- important tourist industry.

Nantucket is a pretty upmarket place. Mirabile dictu, this is one place in the US where not a McDonald's or Burger King is to be seen. Building permits are rigorously controlled, and what new houses are allowed must be built in the island style of weathered grey shingle. A decent four-bedroom overlooking the sea runs at dollars 700,000. Much of Nantucket's appeal lies in its sheer isolation. There is an airport, with regular flights to Boston and New York. But the way to arrive is by ferry in the early morning or evening, watching the outlines of the first grey houses on the dunes separate themselves from the grey sea and the ubiquitous fogbanks. At moments like that you feel the pull of Nantucket's extraordinary history.

The first settlers were Quakers fleeing the Puritan excesses of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But it was whaling which made the island's fortunes. From the 1750s, for around 100 years, whale oil was the petroleum of its day, and Nantucket's whaleships made epic voyages across the seven seas to provide it. At times the island would behave virtually as a sovereign state. The discovery of oil finished Nantucket's whaling business, but the splendid mansions built by the captains and merchants still testify to the fortunes made from it. Separatism's last hurrah came in 1977, when Nantucketers erupted in fury over losing their special seat in the Massachusetts state assembly. But even now native islanders talk of the two-hour ferry trip to Hyannis on the mainland as 'going across to America'. And such American edicts as the Endangered Species Act do not go down too well.

When an official of the Massachusetts branch of the environmentalist Audubon Society put up a cable barring vehicle access to one of the beaches, the local police threatened to arrest him for obstructing a public highway. The committee of five 'selectmen' which runs the island's local affairs says it has no authority in the matter. The man from Audubon is now trying to operate a voluntary ban on vehicles. In fact, say many islanders, he is merely waiting for the first plover casualty, to bring the full wrath of the Wildlife and Fisheries service of the Interior Department in Washington upon insolent Nantucket.

Others liken the crisis to the closure of the beaches in Jaws, set incidentally in next door Martha's Vineyard. Then, of course, it was a great white shark, this time it's a harmless piping plover. But either way, Nantucket doesn't like it.

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