Lessons From a Shorebird

Resilience is built into the character of New Jersey and its denizens, no matter how small.

An oystercatcher chick nicknamed Bobblehead (right), born in Cape May last summer. Photo: Courtesy of the Nature Conservancy
An oystercatcher chick nicknamed Bobblehead (right) proved to be small but mighty as he learned to find food, seek cover and take flight. Photo: Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

On a windswept dune skirting the vast Atlantic coast in Cape May last summer, a mini-miracle unfolded. A mottled egg gave a twitch and then a wiggle. Crack! In a poignant moment, a tiny oystercatcher chick emerged to a new and wondrous life.

He was little, the smallest of his brood, a gray-and-white cotton ball on toothpick legs. But his head—his head! It dominated his diminutive figure, wobbling comically as he moved. I nicknamed him Bobblehead.

The beach presents a mosaic of dangers for defenseless shorebird hatchlings. Gulls and other predators always loom, and high tides can wipe out nurturing home habitat in the blink of an eye. Yet Bobblehead showed adventurous spirit while exploring his special corner of the universe.

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My observations told me that, like his home state of New Jersey, this baby bird was small but mighty, punching above his weight and smart, too. Wisely he spent his first weeks in the nest, under the vigilant watch of his parents. They taught him about camouflage, the importance of quick reflexes to seek cover, and when to use each strategy.

One warm afternoon, the garrulous shorebirds went silent as a hawk’s shadow slid across the dunes. The oystercatcher siblings raced to safety in the dense beach grass, but Bobblehead had wandered farther afield and was exposed. He froze, his little heart doubtless pounding in his chest as the raptor circled again. I held my breath and closed my eyes.

When I reopened them, I saw Bobblehead flattened against the sand, his speckled body indistinguishable from the ground even to a hawk’s sharp vision. I imagined him thinking, Not today, like a character from Game of Thrones. The raptor retreated, and, newly confident, Bobblehead rejoined his family.

Weeks later, a lashing storm blew in and again Bobblehead was separated from his circle. Cold and hungry, he sheltered under some driftwood with visions of a mollusk smorgasbord in his mind’s eye. When the clouds cleared, he saw that his dream had come true; the churning sea had washed a feast ashore, all his for the taking.

Bobblehead eventually grew into a well-proportioned oystercatcher. He mastered finding his own food and departed on his first solo flight south for the winter. But he’ll be back this spring, and when I see him, I plan to thank him from afar for the lessons he taught me:

  • Listen to your parents—they know.
  • Our struggles develop our strengths, and sometimes, we must endure a storm to enjoy the greatest bounty.
  • Resilience is built into the character of New Jersey and its denizens, from people to shorebirds, and nature plays an important role.
  • New Jersey is always home to those who love it, no matter how far we may fly.

Damon Noe is The Nature Conservancy’s critical lands manager in New Jersey. He created the protected shorebird nesting area at South Cape May Meadows where Bobblehead successfully fledged.

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