Piping Plovers on the Beach
The Piping Plover is one of North America’s most endangered birds. This small shorebird is found in just three main breeding locations in North America: the Great Plains, the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Coast.
Earlier this spring there were reports of eight birds along the beaches of the park and sure enough a few weeks later there were four nesting pairs, each caring for a clutch of eggs. Once the first eggs were observed, Ministry of Natural Resources staff installed caging and fencing which protects the nesting birds from disturbance by beach goers and from predation by racoons, gulls, and other animals.
We were lucky to pay another visit to the beach on the day the clutches hatched. Amazingly, the little chicks, on the same day as hatching, were leaving the protection of the nest to forage on the surrounding beach. The site of little fluff balls scurrying around on the sand in a setting sun was a delight to observers, including the dedicated volunteers who monitor the nests and birds through the breeding period.
The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shorebird approximately 16cm tall. It has a very short orange bill with a black tip. The bird is a pale brown colour above, resembling the colour of dried sandy beaches and shorelines, while the underparts are white. The Piping Plover has a single dark lack band across the chest and another single black band across the forehead. Its legs are orange.
The Piping Plover winters on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America and also further south into Mexico and the Carribean. Since Piping Plovers are not often spotted on migration, it is thought that they may make the trip in one nonstop flight. Breeding starts within a few days of arriving back to the Great Lakes shoreline.
In order to attract a mate, the male initiates nest construction by scraping and tossing small stones and shells. Once he has successfully attracted a mate, the pair selects a scrape and a nest is established in a small depression in the sand, sometimes with a few pebbles or shells. The nests blend in very well with surroundings and this is one reason that protective fencing is placed to avoid beach visitors accidentally stepping on or disturbing the nest.
They have one clutch per season, usually laying four gray or buff eggs which are lightly spotted with splotches of brownish/lilac and black. Both the male and female incubate the eggs which normally hatch within 25 to 31 days. The young birds leave the nest very soon after hatching to forage along the beach with their parents who continue to look after the young birds for three to four weeks, after which they are independent. Unlike many other species, the parents do not directly feed the young birds. Instead, they and their parents search for insects and small aquatic animals along the beaches and shoreline.
The Piping Plover once more common in Ontario, experienced significant population declines beginning in the 1930’s. Populations continued to decline to the point that in 1977 there was just a single breeding pair observed in southern Ontario. Accordingly the bird was listed as endangered both federally (Canada) and provincially (Ontario). The main risk to this species is habitat loss and human disturbance. As the birds rely specifically on shoreline habitat, they are impacted directly by shoreline development and alteration as well as heavy beach use, particularly in the breeding season. They are also impacted by predators such as raccoons, gulls and crows which are attracted to and benefit from beach development and tourism. This is referred to a subsidized predation, which describes the fact that predation increases over natural rates where predators are found in higher numbers due to the habitat and food created by humans in developed areas (e.g. garbage, deliberate feeding, etc.). Unfortunately, small populations are also highly vulnerable to impacts from disease and storms. During one of the first nesting seasons at Wasaga Beach, a summer hail storm killed hatchlings, a major setback to such a small breeding population.
Fortunately, the Piping Plover is making a comeback in southern Ontario, from a growing population in Michigan. The first courting pair for many decades was observed at Wasaga Beach in 2005. Although still a precarious population, the birds appear to slowly expanding to their former range in this area of the Province. In fact, one of the Wasaga Beach birds returned this spring to establish a nest with a mate from Michigan at Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands. This is the first nesting pair on the shore of Lake Ontario in over 80 years and the nest site was quickly protected (for more information: Toronto Star Article on Piping Plover at Toronto Islands)
You can help the continued recovery of this special bird by staying out of fenced-off areas on the beach. Supporting the practice of beach fencing by educating neighbors and other visitors will also help by increasing the understanding of the importance of providing a protected area and sharing our beaches with a species that relied on those beaches long before we did. We are fortunate to live near the world’s longest fresh water beach, so we have plenty of room to share it.
You can also:
- Keep pets away from beach others than in designated areas for pet use;
- Enjoy watching these birds while keeping a respectful distance from any Piping Plovers you see;
- Not feed gulls or other birds as this attracts more potential predators; and,
- Maintaining a natural beach rather than “cleaning” your shoreline.
If you live in the vicinity of Wasaga Beach you can also volunteer to be a guardian (To volunteer call (705) 429-2516). This friendly and dedicated group monitors the birds and nests throughout the season, logging observations, educating the public, and keeping a watchful eye on this special little bird.
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