Owen Sound Sun Times Editorial: Plovers aren’t taking over the beach

Leah Articles, Local News

Editorial originally posted August 9, 2011

Editorial by Peter Middleton, Owen Sound Sun Times


The piping plovers that have successfully run the gauntlet of summer at Sauble for the past five years are, once again, in the eye of a storm.

Re-establishing their species at Sauble represented a return to Ontario’s Great Lakes beaches after an absence of more than 30 years. Now, Coun. Janice Jackson of the Town of South Bruce Peninsula has the plovers squarely in her sights (Jackson frustrated after MNR plover talks, The Sun Times, July 20).

As a newly ensconced member of council, she is a dedicated voice for all issues that concern Sauble Beach. The threat the piping plover pose to the beach, however, appears to be second to none in her eyes.

The arguments are tirelessly the same:

  • The beach is being closed to users.
  • The birds are taking over the whole beach.
  • The birds are the cause of a dirty beach.
  • The presence of the birds is having a huge impact on tourism.

Let us consider these concerns.

The beach has never been closed to any user because of the piping plovers’ presence. Nests are protected by a circular perimeter barrier that has a maximum diameter of 30 metres (100 feet), approximately the size of a small Owen Sound back yard. That is the only area that is restricted to human activity, allowing the birds a buffer during the egg laying and incubation period.

Once the chicks hatch they are on the move, searching for the invertebrates that are their sustenance. For the first few days this normally occurs close to the nest site. As they grow, they reach further afield and often feed along the shoreline.

Guardians monitoring the chicks show beachgoers the birds and ask for respect by walking around feeding birds, but do not prevent anybody from using the beach.

Sauble Beach stretches for a distance of approximately 11 kilometres (seven miles) north to south and is recognized as one of the longest freshwater beaches in North America. Even with the maximum of three nests that occurred two years ago, the three protected areas represented a closure of less than one hectare of the total beach. That equates approximately to two modest city lots.

Piping plover are hardly “taking over the whole beach”; nor are they mounting any degree of threat to it and its users.

The driftwood that is equated to a dirty beach is a part of natural beach ecology and necessary for the plovers, providing both feeding and sheltering opportunities. It is critical habitat. A raked beach provides neither.

As Craig Gammie pointed out in his letter to the editor on July 2, Sauble Beach in its natural state is a healthy beach and should not be compromised. The plovers depend upon that.

Having spent more than 12 hours on the beach over the Canada Day weekend, I failed to see an area of the beach that was not in use. There was a discernible pattern in beach use, that saw young adults using the raked portion of the beach more heavily than the unraked portion. Families were more numerous on the unraked portions.

Was this due to the beach management, or was it a young person’s proclivity for the action of the main central beach area, with its stores, food outlets and mixing of people? The whole beach was crowded throughout the weekend

On Sunday, July 2, I talked to over 100 people who asked about the birds. I showed them the chicks and explained the history behind the efforts to protect them. The birds were a fascination for many, adding an element to their enjoyment and understanding of Sauble Beach.

Many came from cities in southern Ontario. Many were newcomers to this country. They were uniformly impressed with the fact that, given a tiny bit of breathing room and consideration, the plover could find a toehold amongst the throngs of humanity on the beach, complete with all the attendant paraphernalia of chairs, sun shades, tents, plastic wagons, etc.

At the water’s edge, jet skis were pulled ashore, catamarans were parked and people splashed in and out of the water. There was precious little space for plovers. Yet, the three tiny chicks (smaller than ping pong balls), which hatched on June 30, were able to survive the weekend through the efforts of two volunteer guardians who kept people aware of the birds’ presence.

Two older chicks at the north end of the beach also came through the weekend unscathed, if somewhat stressed. No beach user was either turned away or prevented from enjoying the beach as they saw fit. The plover did not have any impact on tourism.

The return of piping plover to Sauble has caused an ongoing whirlwind of self-righteous indignation by a small, but vociferous group. They see “their” beach being taken from them. People are “not happy paying $15 to park at a dirty beach” — the same beach that one Canada Day visitor described as one of the cleanest and most beautiful that he had ever seen, much better than Wasaga.

Ms Jackson points out that “Everyone is willing to compromise.” So far it is the piping plover, fighting for survival on the beach alongside an ever burgeoning human presence, that is constantly being required to make compromises, compromises that will undercut its very ability to survive into the future.

The diminutive piping plovers (less than sparrow sized) are no threat to Sauble and never will be. They belong there as much as any beach goer.

I laud the efforts of countless guardians and the Ministry of Natural Resources who have worked tirelessly since 2007 to ensure that piping plover have their place in the sun, alongside beach loving humans.

Peter Middleton Owen Sound