Pipe plovers, thinly colored shorebirds that lay their eggs in small scrapes in the sand, are easy to miss as they dart across the beach. Chris Allieri is harder to overlook.
Last spring, Mr. Allieri started the NYC Plover Project, an organization dedicated to protecting the endangered birds on the beaches in the Rockaways in Queens. He has recruited more than 50 volunteers who spent most of the spring and summer patrolling the beaches defending plovers from dogs and unwitting beachgoers.
Some interactions can be awkward, like when Mr. Allieri intercepted a young woman carrying a small dog from her boat to the shore of Breezy Point Tip on a blistering Saturday. Not far away, a handful of young plovers rolled over the waves while at least three chicks ran across the sand.
Mr. Allieri explained that the dog was forbidden. The woman said she understood and returned to the boat. But then a man stomped out of the boat through medium water and asked Mr. Allieri, “Do you work for the government?”
Mr Allieri said he would not call the police if the dog set foot on the beach. The man said he didn’t like being told what to do. Mr. Allieri called the park police before the man walked back to his boat.
Arguments like that are atypical, Mr. Allieri said, but days at the beach haven’t exactly been relaxing since he started watching over plovers.
Mr. Allieri, 47, lives in Brooklyn and owns a public relations firm specializing in clean energy and climate technologies. He saw his first plover as a child with his father, an avid birdwatcher, on the Jersey Shore. He said it was like seeing ‘a unicorn’.
Last year, Mr. Allieri was at Fort Tilden Beach near Gateway National Recreation Area in Queens when a plover appeared on the beach next to him. Then he saw another, and another.
He also saw dogs, off leash, chasing the vulnerable birds.
“Who protects them?” said Mr. Allieri.
He spent much of the first summer of the coronavirus pandemic photographing plovers and communicating with the National Park Service, which oversees Gateway.
This spring, Mr. Allieri started the Plover Project to inform beachgoers about the birds and, if necessary, call authorities to protect them.
Plovers have destroyed their coastal habitat through human development and erosion. At one point, there were barely more than 720 breeding pairs of Atlantic plovers left.
The birds are federally protected under the Endangered Species and Migratory Birds Treaty Acts. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a total of 5,983 cases were investigated under both laws in 2020, of which plover investigations represent a fraction.
Plover chicks start running and feeding on their own practically from birth, and they are usually defenseless against predators such as ghost crabs, gulls and raccoons, among many others. Human proximity can prevent the chicks from eating, which can be a death sentence.
Once grown, the little birds become world travelers, migrating south every year from the sandy beaches along the Atlantic coast, the Great Lakes and river systems on the Great Plains, the three places where most of them were born. mr. Allieri said that one, banned in New Jersey and nicknamed Clark Kent, was seen in the Bahamas, traveling more than 1,000 miles.
In the New York area, plovers tend to nest on the Jersey Shore, Long Island, and on Rockaway Beach, Fort Tilden, and Breezy Point beaches in Queens. They arrive in March and can stay until the end of August, during the hot months when people also flock to the sea.
That timing is unfortunate, and some beachside communities have hated the birds for decades because protecting them often means confining the beaches.
Entire stretches of beach can be cordoned off. Walking dogs, flying kites, setting off fireworks or driving off-road to a remote area for fishing are prohibited. Anyone caught harming a plover could face severe financial penalties and even jail time.
Protecting the birds could also mean catching or killing animals that they eat, such as foxes in New Jersey or feral cats on Long Island, actions that have infuriated residents. In the Hamptons, some homeowners turned against the birds, so much so that an outspoken critic published a recipe for spit-roasted plover in a local newspaper.
The village of West Hampton Dunes on Long Island was outraged by plover regulations, which required about half of the beaches to be fenced, protective structures built around nests and hired “plover monitors,” who patrol the sand and cars crawl on nearby roads, said the mayor, Gary Vegliante.
“We were quarantined from our beach,” said Mr Vegliante.
But over the years, residents have largely accepted the restrictions, Mr Vegliante said. “The birds are cute, no one wants to see them abandoned or lost,” he said.
US Park Police enforce laws protecting plovers and other endangered species on the beaches of Queens that Mr. Allieri is watching. But there are only so many park rangers available. Mr Allieri’s group is a big help in guarding miles of beach, said Tony Lordo, a lieutenant with the park police.
“It’s the extra eyes and ears, that’s really what we need,” said Lieutenant Lordo at Fort Tilden Beach.
The Park Service worked together with Mr. Allieri and helped teach him and the volunteers about conflict de-escalation and the best way to approach people on the beach.
Many people, he said, are eager to learn more about plovers, which are undeniably cute — their chicks look like a children’s art project, a few cotton balls glued to pipe cleaner feet.
Mr Allieri has repurposed a stall on the beach promenade at Jacob Riis Park, printing plover stickers and temporary tattoos to give passers-by.
Samantha Philbert, 30, said she joined the Plover Project because she thought the birds were “cute.”
An illustrator who lives in Brooklyn, she said that to get to the beaches, you have to ride two buses for an hour and a half, and she usually stays for hours. She approaches people with a sculpture of a plover egg and pictures of various shorebirds and tries to teach, not to scold.
Ms. Philbert said that as an introverted black woman, she often thought about what happened in 2020 when a black birdwatcher asked a white woman not to let her dog run free in Central Park, only to get the woman to call the police.
“It’s just a little intimidating when you’re kind of the only black person, like in an area that’s predominantly white,” Ms Philbert said.
But aside from rare encounters with visibly intoxicated people, she said, “Everyone was really nice to me, everyone was smiling everywhere.”
The number of plovers in the Rockaways has increased in recent years, with 46 pairs reported in 2020. Mr Allieri said he plans to continue his efforts as long as the birds keep coming back to the city.
“They’re New Yorkers too,” Mr. Allieri said. “They live their lives, just as we try to live our lives.”