Boneyard Beach at South Carolina's Bull Island.
Sunrise at Boneyard Beach at South Carolina’s Bulls Island.

In the summer of 1833, John James Audubon chartered a schooner with the name of Ripley. The ship starts from Eastport, Maine, sails east across the Bay of Fundy, then northeast along the coast of Nova Scotia, and then turns northwest to pass through the “Gut of Canseau.”

Audubon writes that the Spanish named the strait after the “innumerable Wild Geese, which in years long past and forgotten, resorted to this famed passage.” The Spanish word for goose is “ganso.” When the French gain control of the region in the 17th century, they change the name of the strait to Canseau. The French word for goose is “canseau.” When the English win Canada from France in the 18th century, they change the name to the phonetically similar but meaningless Canso instead of what should have been Goose Strait. Regardless, Audubon describes everything he sees in Nova Scotia to his left and Cape Breton Island to his right as “dreary, poor, and inhospitable-looking.” 

The Ripley continues on a northwest route through St. George’s Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence and reaches the Magdeleine Islands (present-day Magdalen Islands) by mid-June. From one of the beaches, Audubon is able to marvel at Arctic terns “plunging into the waters, capturing a tiny fish or shrimp at every dash.” 

The Arctic Tern as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.
Audubon’s Arctic Tern “dances through the air.”

On the same beach, Audubon sees many pairs of the Piping plover. He also searches for and finds some of their nests with eggs. The nests of Piping plovers are normally slight scratches in the sand. The parents then rely on camouflaged eggs to help keep safe the chicks until they hatch. And once the chicks emerge, they almost immediately begin running about “with remarkable speed, and, at the least note of the parent bird indicative of danger, squat so closely on the sand that you may walk over them without seeing them.” 

The Piping plover as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.
The numbers of Piping plovers are getting to where they might be piping no more.

Audubon in his lifetime sees as many Piping plovers as anyone will ever probably see again. The Piping plover’s nesting, warning, and hiding techniques are nowhere close to protecting them effectively enough from humans either disturbing or overrunning sandy beaches. Wherever the Piping plover is located, it is either threatened or endangered.