29 Jul 2016

They're Back!

by Helen Mason

Adult male piping plover on the beach at Presqu'ile Park.
This spring, after an absence of 100 years, piping plovers again nested on the sandy beaches of Lake Ontario in Presqu'ile Park near Brighton. It all began with two brothers born at Wasaga Beach last year. In April, the pair landed on a sandy stretch of Lake Ontario shore accompanied by a female born in a different nest at Wasaga Beach, also last year.

Piping plovers are a sand-coloured shorebird about the size of a sparrow. They share some similarities with Killdeer, their more-common relative, but are much smaller, paler in colour, and have orange-yellow legs.

The three plovers at Presqu'ile sported breeding plumage, which includes a black band around their neck, a black forehead patch, and a bright orange bill with a black tip.

The author (left) holds a log book in front of the roped-off area.
They must have spent the winter along the Atlantic or Gulf Coasts, where piping plovers breed on the salt flats. As northern summer approached, they may have watched other piping plovers head north to the prairies or along the Northern Atlantic Coast where the largest group of piping plovers lives. These three flew toward the Great Lakes.

They're part of a species that lost much of its breeding habitat when people began developing shorelines during the 1900s. By 1985, when piping plovers were listed as endangered, there were only 17 breeding pairs in the Great Lakes population, all in Michigan. Thanks to American protection, the numbers have now started to climb.

The Canadian Wildlife Service bands the 10-day-old chicks.
In 2007, piping plovers returned to Canada, first nesting at Sauble Beach on Georgian Bay. Soon, there were also nests at Wasaga Beach, where the Presqu'ile trio were born last year. When the three exhibited breeding behaviour, volunteers quickly roped off an area about half the size of a soccer field. Once the female chose a nesting site, they placed a large wire cage around it.

Both the cage wire and the fence allow the birds to enter and exit, but discourage people and predators from doing the same. Protected by teams of volunteer guardians, the female laid four eggs in late May. While she and the male incubated the eggs, the guardians kept beachcombers informed of what was going on, encouraged them to stay away from the protected area, shared what they knew about the species, and wrote down fresh observations.

An adult broods the young. How many legs do you see?
Once the eggs hatched starting June 28, volunteers were kept busy trying to keep track of three chicks. (The fourth egg had been damaged and didn't hatch.) This became more difficult when the young quickly started to run along the beach in search of their diet of insects, spider, larvae, and small crustaceans. It became even harder when the balls of down began to flap their wings and make short flights on July 19.

Guardian Leslie Abram keeps a photographic diary.
By the end of July, volunteers were anxiously watching interactions between gulls and the plover babies, hoping that the juveniles would ward off any attacks and live to fly back south and have their own young.

When this article was written on July 27, the three babies were still alive and being watched by their father and a rotating shift of about 50 volunteers. The mother headed south around the middle of July. Once the babies fully fledge, it is expected that the father will migrate as well. The babies aren't expected to leave until the middle or end of August.

And what about the other brother? Just after the chicks hatched, an unbanded female turned up on the Presqu'ile Beach. The unmated brother and this female disappeared soon afterwards, possibly to a southern beach where they can breed.

Helen Mason is an author who has written 32 books, most of them for young readers. She also reviews books for ResourceLinks.

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