The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is investigating the theft along with New Hampshire Fish and Game, is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. On Monday, the Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust kicked in another $2,500.
Susi von Oettingen, a biologist with the federal wildlife agency, said it was clear that the eggs were stolen by a human, not a predator. There were footprints leading to the nest, and cages set around the nest to keep predators out had been vandalized, she said.
"There's no market for these eggs. It was purely out of spite or meanspiritedness," she said. "Some people do not like plovers. They don't like their beach as habitat for an animal, of course, that was there before we were. I find it sad, I mean, really sad, that there's that kind of behavior going on."
Piping plovers are small, sand-colored birds that breed on coastal beaches from Newfoundland and southeastern Quebec to North Carolina. They were hunted nearly into extinction until the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, peaked in population in the 1940s and have declined since then due to increased development and recreational use of beaches.
The birds are considered a threatened species by the federal government and are considered endangered in numerous states, including New Hampshire, where they weren't seen for several years before a jogger came across a nest in 1996. Since then, the state has averaged about five mating pairs each summer.
Each spring, state Fish and Game workers put up wooden stakes strung with nylon rope as fencing along the sand dunes in Hampton and Seabrook to protect the piping plover nests. Volunteers and a full-time staffer monitor the nests and chicks. Had the eggs not been stolen, the fencing would have been removed by the end of June when the chicks were able to fly, but the theft has extended the breeding season because the birds had to start over and lay a new nest.
Officials said the eggs were stolen during the night of May 6 or morning of May 7. Witnesses in the area described a possible suspect as a thin, white man in his late 40s to mid-50s, with grayish, salt-and-pepper hair and driving a gold or tan Toyota Camry or Corolla.
Von Oettingen said this was the second time eggs had been stolen in New Hampshire. Last year, one egg was stolen, but nothing else was disturbed.
Also last year, two piping plover eggs were removed and fences were damaged at the Gateway National Recreation Area in Highlands, N.J. A $4,000 reward was offered in that case, but a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday the case had been closed in March without anyone being charged.
The maximum penalty for killing a piping plover or destroying eggs is six months in jail and a fine of up to $25,000 per egg.
The Humane Society of the United States is offering the reward as part of its anti-poaching program, said Elise Traub, deputy manager of the society's wildlife abuse campaign. This is the first time it has offered a reward in a piping plover case, altogether it has offered more than $240,000 in rewards since 2008, she said.
"A lot of poaching crimes go undetected," Traub said. "That's why the public plays an incredibly important role."
The birds should be protected not because they're tremendous at pest control or contain the key to curing cancer but because they simply are part of our natural heritage, von Oettingen argues.
"This is a species that evolved with wild and natural beaches, and as long as they're there, we have a remnant of what our beaches were historically," she said. "Once they're gone, that means we have managed, degraded, engineered, just taken over beaches to the point where the natural environment is poorly represented if at all."