EAST SANDWICH – The view from Spring Hill Beach includes pieces from a complicated puzzle: large wind turbines, tiny birds and David.
Day and night, through wind and rain, David watches over piping plovers, a bird species listed as threatened on the Atlantic Coast under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Perched on a low dune overlooking Cape Cod Bay, David listens for his targets as they take flight or scurry between the bay’s lapping waves and the sandy wrack line. David never complains, feeding on the sun and regurgitating data on command.
“He’s very cute,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife endangered species biologist Anne Hecht said about David – the name given to a circuit board attached to a Global Positioning System, antenna and 12-volt battery powered by a solar panel.
The simple computer is part of a study of the potential threat from land-based wind turbines and other novel construction along the coastline to the charismatic and controversial shorebirds, whose nesting habits have been known to keep vehicles, dog walkers and kite flyers from the beach.
The multiyear study of the plovers by researchers from State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry is taking place on Cape Cod and in New Jersey. It’s funded with $295,000 from the Fish and Wildlife Service supplemented by grants from the Goldenrod Foundation and the Garden Club of America.
“We are looking specifically at movements of piping plovers,” Michelle Avis, a SUNY graduate student leading the Cape-based work, said last Monday during a tour of Spring Hill Beach, one of three Cape sites for the research.
In 2012, the first of two years of fieldwork, 32 adult birds and two chicks were banded on the Cape. Ten banded female plovers were also fitted with small transmitters, Avis said.
This year, 15 more adult birds were banded and transmitters were attached to another 10 female birds, she said.
The transmitters are attached with Super Glue and eventually fall off, Avis said.
On a recent Monday, a male and female pair ran up and down the beach behind a string barrier installed by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. A small wire stuck out from the female’s back and bands around the birds’ legs were visible through a scope. Somewhere nearby, mostly camouflaged among the sand, rocks and wrack, four chicks were adjusting to life, biding time until taking flight for the first time.
Soon Avis and a group of volunteers will capture the chicks and band them, too.
“It’s pretty tough to catch a chick,” she said. “They’re quite fast.”
They better be. Almost everything on the beach is a potential threat, including coyotes, raccoons and crows.
Avis and Laura Jenkins, a SUNY seasonal technician working on the project, are also monitoring birds at Chapin Beach in Dennis and the barrier island of Sampsons Island and Dead Neck in Cotuit.
The Aquaculture Research Corp., a shellfish propagation business near Chapin Beach, is the proposed site for a 242-foot-tall wind turbine that has been tied up by opposition over the impact on historic properties as well as other concerns. Meanwhile, a plan by Massachusetts Audubon and Three Bays Preservation to move sand from one end of Sampsons Island and Dead Neck to maintain bird habitat has faced protests from those who say the proposal is geared toward protecting wealthy property owners in Oyster Harbors.
SUNY’s piping plover research is not related to either proposal but the results could be useful in measuring the impact of future projects, according to Hecht and Avis.
“It’ll be very site-by-site, a case-by-case basis,” Avis said.
Other research by the University of Massachusetts Amherst is geared toward measuring the potential effects on birds from offshore wind turbines such as those Cape Wind Associates has proposed to build in Nantucket Sound, Hecht said.
Avis and Jenkins work six days a week using a variety of techniques to monitor the birds, including two Davids, dubbed D1 and D2. The monitors are named for the main character in “The World of David the Gnome,” a cartoon about a gnome who helps animals. In the New Jersey plover research, the same equipment goes by R2-D2, as in “Star Wars.”
The monitors pinpoint the birds’ locations and can provide researchers with information on whether a bird is flying or walking based on the strength of the signal from the transmitters. The data must be downloaded and then interpreted.
Avis and Jenkins also make hour-long observations of the banded birds, marking their location and activities as well as the speed, frequency and maximum height of their flights.
“The height is much more difficult to gauge than distance,” Avis said.
One technique for measuring the maximum height uses a video camera mounted to a scope on a gun stock. The stock is painted blue and adorned with butterflies and flower stickers to differentiate it from a real gun.
Knowing the size of a typical bird, the researchers use the scope to measure distance, Avis said. A digital inclinometer attached to the gun stock measures the angle from the observer’s eye to the bird, providing enough information to ascertain the other sides of an imaginary triangle and the height of the target, she said.
The researchers, who do fieldwork from March 15 through Aug. 15, also observe what the birds do in the face of obstacles both natural – like the dune – and unnatural – the homes and utility wires along nearby Salt Marsh Road at the Spring Hill Beach site.
The hypothesis for the project, which is being overseen by Jonathan Cohen, an assistant professor at SUNY, is that the nesting plovers won’t be affected by turbines – but the proof is pending.
“We’re going to wait until we have all the data,” Hecht said, adding that she is sure the cutting-edge research will be useful.
Avis said she plans to have her thesis paper on the project done by the end of 2014, which is also the deadline for her report to Fish and Wildlife.