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Milford Point’s Coastal Ranger: Finding Rare Birds while Protecting the Vulnerable Ones

Chandler Wiegand, the IBA Coastal Ranger at the Milford Point Coastal Center.

“Basically nobody birding in Connecticut today had ever seen the bird in the state. It was one of the best finds in the 25 years I’ve lived in Connecticut.”

Milford, May 25, 2018 – Let’s face it – in an age of self-promotion and personal branding, being the IBA Coastal Ranger at Milford Point is not the highest-profile position in the world.

Chandler Wiegand, who holds that position for the Connecticut Audubon Society this summer, was just a guy with binoculars and an 800-millimeter camera lens, walking a friendly patrol along the sandbar.

“Not many people know who I am,” he said. “Or didn’t up until I found the Wilson’s Plover.”

Chandler walks the shore at the Coastal Center weekday evenings and weekends. On Sunday, April 29, he was on the sandbar, almost directly opposite the observation platform in the dunes, scanning a flock of shorebirds. One of his main responsibilities is to protect the nests of the beach’s Piping Plovers, a threatened species. So plovers were on his mind. That day, one caught his eye.

“I noticed a large black bill. Immediately I thought ‘Wilson’s Plover,’ maybe from having seen it in Delaware.”

He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Delaware. Wilson’s Plover’s breeding range is from Cape May, N.J., south, and so he knew the bird from that area. After seeing it, he texted a friend, who posted it to the Connecticut Ornithological Association.

The Wilson’s Plover at the Coastal Center in late April. It was the first time the birding community has seen one in Connecticut since 1989. Note the thick black bill. Photo by Stefan Martin.

“I was standing on the porch of the Coastal Center and 10 minutes later people started shooting into the parking lot. Half an hour later,” Chandler said, “I don’t think I could’ve found a space in the lot.”

The last time a Wilson’s Plover was seen in Connecticut was in 2007, and that sighting was by a person who happened to get a good photo but didn’t share it for months. Before that, the most recent sighting was in 1989.

“Basically nobody birding in Connecticut today had ever seen the bird in the state,” said Greg Hanisek, editor of the COA’s journal, The Connecticut Warbler. “It was one of the best finds in the 25 years I’ve lived in Connecticut.”

The Wilson’s Plover was one of 132 species Chandler had seen since April 3, when his job started. Although a long two-month bird list is not an indicator of habitat value by itself, it is evidence of why the Coastal Center and the surrounding area is a globally significant Important Bird Area.

He mentioned the 132 species on a recent warm evening, while scanning a jagged line of sandpipers and plovers feeding and resting at the water’s edge. Among them were three larger sandpipers that looked as if they were afflicted with a severe sunburn: Red Knots, a federally endangered species.

133. Within minutes it appeared on the COA list.

He needs a basic knowledge of birds to do his job, but providing fodder for the state’s birding community isn’t a main task. Protecting vulnerable birds is.

Six pairs of Piping Plovers are nesting on the sandbar and beach near the Coastal Center this year. The Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds (which includes Connecticut Audubon along with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and Audubon Connecticut) and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has enclosed each in a wire cage that allows the birds to come and go while keeping predators out.

It’s a successful tactic. Last year, 66 pairs of Piping Plovers nested in Connecticut – the most since records started being kept about 30 years ago. Terns and American Oystercatchers also benefit from active protection.

One of Chandler’s jobs is to let visitors know, in as friendly a way as possible, that the birds are nesting there and that if the visitors or their dogs get too close it’s likely to hinder the birds. Interfering with a federally-listed species is a crime.

He makes a point of saying hello to everyone he sees. The joggers and the dog-walkers tend not to know about the threatened birds. Not so for the people looking through a scope or carrying a camera lens the size of a rain barrel.

It is those folks who, when Chandler Wiegand introduces himself and stops to chat these days, are as likely as not to know who he is: “You’re the guy who found the Wilson’s Plover.”






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