It’s CSI: Fire Island. The victim? One small, extremely controversial bird. Earlier this season, the body of an adult-male piping plover was found on a stretch of beach near Sailors Haven—in a case that continues to vex local authorities.
“The autopsy results confirmed that the bird had, indeed, been run over by a motor vehicle,” says Wayne Valentine, chief ranger of the Fire Island National Seashore (FINS). What’s more, the plover was found in a “vehicle-free beach area,” so in addition to violating the federal Endangered Species Act, the driver was also breaking a FINS regulation. But who had a motive to kill?
These days, who doesn’t? This summer the piping plover—a federally protected shorebird that nests in the dunes of Long Island—has eclipsed sharks as the biggest menace to residents’ unfettered beach access. Outspoken Hamptonite Jerry Della Femina brought the birds to the forefront after East Hampton’s Fourth of July fireworks display was canceled when village officials deemed it a threat to plover nests. “You know why the plovers are endangered?” Della Femina fumed. “Because everyone hates them.”
Plovers have been under federal safekeeping since the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918, after the 5.5-inch-long birds were driven to near extinction by hunting. Their eggs hatch each summer just in time to compete for space with oversize beach towels. On Fire Island, fences stay up around likely nesting areas until after Labor Day. “A lot of our beach is already eroded, so during high tide there’s hardly anywhere to sit,” says resident Amanda Tarter. “The plovers are taking up the whole thing! It’s like they’re sitting in their beach chairs laughing at us while we’re getting splashed.” But does she know who might have done one in? “It could have been anyone.”
If the plover was murdered, it wouldn’t be the first time the birds incited a Fire Islander to violence. “We had an incident between our intern and a resident,” says Daniel Barrera, a FINS biologist. “The resident was near Sailors Haven with an unleashed dog. There were NO PETS ALLOWED signs by the plover area, so our intern asked her to remove it. The resident attempted to bombard our intern with trash.” Ranger Valentine doesn’t believe the altercation is connected to the vehicular birdslaughter. But nobody’s ruling out anything for sure.