Today's blog is a difficult one to write. Events of the last few weeks have conspired against the Piping Plovers at Sauble Beach, and, as of today, there are only 4 (possibly 5) adult birds left on the beach. The 4 birds are sitting on 2 nests (second nestings), and it is hoped that they will be able to incubate, hatch, and raise their young; however, the ongoing presence of Merlins, Foxes, Gulls, Crows, Raccoons, and (now) hordes of beachgoers will continue to make things difficult for the Plovers.
Perhaps today's entry should be labelled "Obituaries". I feel the need to pay tribute to all of the little ones that have been lost this season. I have also included some thoughts and "wonderings" about measures that might have prevented the losses.
4 Eggs/Embryos Lost on June 8
On June 8th, there was a rainstorm with high winds that caused the first loss on the beach. Some of us had inquired, in the days prior to the storm, about placing sandbags along the front of the nest, but MNRF was unwilling to grant permission. M1 and F1 had been sitting on 4 eggs in a scrape that was close to the shore, and waves washed sand over the nest. The Plovers tried for 2 days to uncover their eggs, but were unable to do so. As volunteers and members of the public, we were not allowed to enter the perimeter or help the birds, and MNRF staff was not willing to try to find the buried nest. Perhaps there was no hope of finding the nest in order to allow the Plovers to continue to incubate, but it was heart-wrenching to watch the birds attempting to achieve this impossible task on their own.
After about a week, MNRF came and excavated, but could not find any trace of the nest. Eggs would have been sent to U of G or the ROM if they had been found. The eggs would have hatched around the 20th of June, and would have contained live embryos at the time they were washed over.
This pair has since re-nested north of their original location, and are incubating 2 eggs.
Mr. Lonely Disappears on June 14
Mr. Lonely had finally found a mate, and he and Ms. Green Dots were incubating 4 eggs that would likely have hatched around the end of June. Unfortunately, he disappeared on June 14, and his mate was left to incubate the eggs by herself. There had been a Fox and Merlins sighted in the area, and it is likely that this little male was depredated.
Predator management is a controversial concept. There are many ideas and options for deterring the predators on the beach, but none are embraced by MNRF. Predation often occurs at night or in the early morning when people are not present.
And 4 More Eggs are Lost
When Mr. Lonely did not return to the nest to take his turn incubating the eggs, his mate sat for longer than usual trying to keep the eggs warm. However, hunger eventually won out, and by afternoon she was leaving the nest for several hours at a time to find food. As a result, the embryos died on the beach, and Ms. Green Dots abandoned her nest after a few days.
In a case like this one, retrieval of eggs, incubation and captive-rearing of young chicks is undertaken in some areas (Michigan, East Coast of Canada) with good success rates. The process is complicated and time-consuming, but several years ago the Toronto Zoo was willing to take on the challenge. MNRF would not allow the Zoo to incubate or raise chicks in captivity. It is hoped that incubation and captive-rearing in the cases of abandoned nests of Endangered Species will be reconsidered as options by the Ministry at this crucial time in the recovery process.
Flag Boy Loses His Mate
There was great excitement on the beach when 4 little chicks hatched on Friday, June 17. On Saturday morning, Flag Boy had his little ones down near the shore feeding. It became apparent after several hours that his mate was not around, and that he was trying to look after the chicks on his own. The chicks' mother was likely depredated the morning after the hatch.
4 Chicks are Lost
Without a mate to help with the rearing/brooding/protection of 4 chicks, Flag Boy had a difficult time. It is likely that a Ring-billed Gull (or a Fox, or a Merlin, or....) took all 4 chicks on the morning of Monday, June 20. They were only 2 1/2 days old.
The loss of chicks is always difficult, and these chicks were our last hope for a first nesting. Anyone who has watched a Gull swallow a Piping Plover chick can tell you that it is not something that is easily forgotten (or forgiven!).
Flag Boy wandered around his nest site for several days, and then disappeared. There have been sightings of him, however, and it is hoped that he is still on the beach at this time.
All in all, it has been a frustrating year to date for our Piping Plovers at Sauble Beach. A combination of weather and predators, coupled with MNRF unwillingness to act, has been disappointing for the humans involved, and devastating for the birds. While there have been many kind, interested people on the beach, there have been others who have expressed their displeasure about sharing space with the Piping Plovers.
Sauble is a public beach, and there is not the level of protection or support that is needed to ensure the recovery of a fragile species like the Piping Plovers. This week when I visited Sauble, I was surprised to see that extensive raking had taken place. There is no driftwood/debris outside of the perimeters in which the Plovers can take cover. A Merlin was spotted near one of the nests on a rescue tower. 60+ Gulls were lounging on the shore near the other nest site, and Crows were foraging in the reeds. On Thursday night, there was a fireworks display on the beach which must have been stressful for the birds.
In spite of all of the strikes against them, the Piping Plovers that remain on the beach have not given up, and are faithfully taking turns incubating their eggs. Ms. Green Dot, having lost her mate and her first nest, has moved north, and shares one nest with Port Boy. They are incubating 4 eggs.
M1 and F1 share the other nest, their second of the season, after losing their first family to wind and waves. They are incubating 2 eggs. Second nestings are stressful for the birds, and it is not unusual to see a smaller clutch of eggs the second time around. Female birds expend a great deal of energy migrating north and laying eggs; this little female had already laid and incubated 4 eggs during a busy time on the beach.
First nesting success is extremely important, and we can only hope that the eggs that are being incubated in second nests now are viable, and that the females are not experiencing undue stress.
Flag Boy shows up now and again, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him attempting to steal one of the other ladies....(just my opinion!)
The birds are trying their best to fulfil their destinies on the beach. They have flown long distances from their wintering sites to find sandy expanses on which to lay their eggs and raise their young. Adult Plovers spend nearly a month sitting on eggs, and the father spends another month protecting, and brooding, and teaching their young, in the hopes that they will be able to fledge. (Mothers often leave after a few weeks.)
As human beings, we are in a position to assist in the recovery of an Endangered Species. Are there actions beyond those already attempted that we are willing to try in order to bring our Great Lakes Piping Plovers back from the brink of extinction? Are we able to set aside preconceived notions, politics, and our unwillingness to change or take risks, and embrace new ways of enabling this species to survive and thrive?
These amazing little birds are worthy of our best efforts.