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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
A poster by Durham Constabulary
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine