As the fall migration begins, beachgoers are treated to a spectacle as long-legged shorebirds scurry along the shores for a meal along their migration routes. While watching these foraging forays, we often do not consider the enormous challenges faced by these shorebirds, nor the resilience and uniqueness embodied in each species. Every once and a while, though, we are given the opportunity to think a little bit harder and learn a little more.
Piping Plovers (Charadrius Melodus) are no strangers to challenges, however, they are beginning to get the recognition they deserve. Plover Lovers were very excited to hear that Piping Plovers were named Shorebird of the Year by World Shorebirds Day in 2016/17! These 40-60g birds demonstrate a resilience that continues to inspire conservationists in Sauble Beach, Ontario, 10 years after the Piping Plovers returned to nest in Ontario along the Great Lakes after being declared extirpated in 1986. Their return drew in birders and environmentalists, sparking the beginning of the Plover Lovers; the local volunteer organization dedicated to education, outreach, and monitoring for Piping Plovers protection. Their current endangered status under the Canadian Species at Risk Act and the Ontario Endangered Species Act is not the sole reason people are involved in the conservation of Piping Plovers, however. The lifestyles, behaviours, and habits of Piping Plovers have drawn in and motivated dedicated individuals for many years.
Piping Plovers generally arrive in Sauble Beach in mid-April to early May, and get straight to determining territory and courting. A male begins the engaging courtship display by digging ‘scrapes’ when he pushes his chest into the sand and kicks back with his legs to create a circular depression in the sand. He then stands, very proud of his work, while the female tests out the potential nest. If she finds the nest suitable, he begins his goose-stepping dance, standing straighter than seems possible for a short, stocky shorebird, and kicking his legs out in front of him in a special march.
Generally eggs are laid in May, and occasionally in June if the parents lose their first clutch of eggs. Piping Plovers lay their eggs every other day, and very consistently lay four eggs in their first clutch. When the first egg is found on Sauble Beach, a mini-exclosure is put up by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF), which is a rectangular wire cage above the eggs to protect them from predators such as Raccoons, Ring-Billed Gulls, and American Crows. A perimeter with a 50m radius (more or less) is roped off around the exclosure to minimize human disturbance. When all four eggs have been laid, the ‘mini’ is replaced by a full-sized predator exclosure. This larger structure includes an apron of plastic trellis buried under the sand to protect the eggs from foxes working to dig underneath the metal wire sides of the exclosure. The ‘mini’ is used initially as its quick setup minimizes disturbance to the adults fidelity to the nest. The larger exclosure takes more time to erect, but the adults nest fidelity is stronger at the complete-clutch stage. Adult Piping Plovers are able to fit easily between the wires while most predators cannot. In Sauble Beach, the average incubation period is 26 days.
In the days leading up to the hatch, local Plover Lovers volunteers appear in greater numbers on the beach. Piping Plover hatchlings weigh only about 5g, but because they are precocial, they are able to walk and forage for themselves only hours after they hatch. Their small size means that they must thermoregulate by brooding with parent birds. Occasionally, beachgoers are surprised to see adult Piping Plovers that appear to have 10 legs as their four chicks crowd underneath them in an attempt to escape the cool winds of Sauble Beach. The most critical time for Piping Plover chicks is the first 10 days of their lives when they are vulnerable to primarily avian predators including gulls, crows, and Merlins. It is in these first weeks that volunteers and beachgoers fall in love with Piping Plovers. It is difficult not to empathize with the unwavering determination of Piping Plover parents to protect their puff-ball bodied, long legged chicks.
Piping Plover parents face formidable challenges, from habitat loss to the ever-increasing number of gulls on beaches. Consequently, parent plovers are seen bursting into the sky to attack and chase away avian predators. One cannot help but admire the audacity of a Piping Plover mom, puffing out her chest and ‘piping’ at humans coming too close to her chicks, or the Piping Plover dad patrolling the perimeter where his chicks are foraging. Piping Plovers also perform a broken wing display, in which they drag one wing on the ground in an attempt to draw predators away from their nests. Males generally stay until their chicks have fledged, while females enjoy an early vacation, usually leaving the beach about two weeks after the chicks hatch. We don’t blame them though, as they lay 4 eggs that are up to 1/3 of their body weight! By the time chicks are about 27 days old, they begin to fledge, or are able to sustain flight, and leave the beach by mid to late August.
On Sauble Beach, when chicks are about 7-10 days old, they are banded. The bands allow for greater depth of analysis in learning where Piping Plovers migrate, and their behaviours. In addition to watching and recording these behaviours for the OMNFR, Plover Lovers volunteers work to raise awareness by handing out brochures, activity sheets, temporary tattoos, and stickers. Despite the handouts, it’s the stories about the unique life histories of each bird that make the initiative successful and fulfilling for volunteers, tourists, and locals. Observing a hatch with a little boy and his mom, watching chicks foraging with groups of teenagers, observing first flight attempts with experienced birders; all of these experiences allow strangers to come together and share experiences and foster a greater understanding and care for the environment. When we learn and understand the intricate details of the lives of shorebirds, we see ourselves reflected in the world around us. Join us in spreading understanding about shorebirds and continuing to encourage one another to share the shore.
For more information on Piping Plover conservation in Sauble Beach, visit ploverlovers.com.