For the last eight years during the non-winter months, Norah Toth has trekked out to Ontario’s Sauble Beach about once a week to help guard nesting piping plovers on the gravelly, sandy shores of Lake Huron.
Toth is among hundreds of dedicated volunteers around the Great Lakes who have helped encourage nesting of the endangered shorebird. The piping plover, once down to a dozen pair, has been making a gradual return to the Great Lakes. Just this week, a new team of volunteers is being recruited for a pair of plovers who popped up on a Toronto Islands beach a couple of weeks ago -– making it the first active nest in the city since 1934.
The small black, white and grey bird has been in serious decline since the 1940s, according to the Nature Conservancy of Canada. It was recognized as an endangered species by the federal government in 1985.
The bird mainly breeds along the Eastern North American coast and spends winters in the south, in an area stretching from South Carolina to the Caribbean.
Plovers prefer to nest on beaches, just beyond where the water, according to the Species at Risk Public Registry. The birds use the debris found on the beaches, including small pebbles and sticks, to create their nests.
After a lengthy absence from the Great Lakes region, conservation efforts were ramped up and the birds returned. First they came to Sauble Beach to nest in 2007 and to Wasaga Beach around the same time. The Toronto piping plovers chose the same beach on Hanlan’s Point that the species favoured 81 years ago. Local birders have spotted a nest and four eggs.
For Toth, the slow recovery is particularly exciting, as she’s come to love the bird over the years, dubbing herself a bona fide “plover lover.”
“It’s just a little bird,” she told CTVNews.ca. “They’re sweet and they’re wonderful, and I’m in love.”
Toth and others take turns covering hours-long shifts during the daylight hours at Sauble to protect the delicate nest from humans, predators and other environmental stresses.
While signs and fencing help to physically protect the nest from interference, Toth said having volunteer monitors adds a layer of public education.
When beach-goers approach the nesting area, volunteers can explain to them the importance of maintaining the birds’ natural environment, and the status of the plovers as endangered species, she said.
Volunteers also educate them about the impact certain activities can have on the plovers, including setting off fireworks, flying kites, playing sports and other recreational activities.
And then there’s the citizen science contribution to the recovery program.
During their volunteer shifts, they record whether it is a male or female sitting on the nest, when the birds switch positions, the presence of any predators, and any changes in the surrounding environment. Their observations are passed on to a biologist who is working on the local recovery program.
In fact, it was a volunteer who recently noted that a garbage bin had been placed close to a nest on Sauble Beach, something that might attract more predators. After the information was passed on to the biologist, the town decided to remove the bin.
“The reason it was removed was that garbage attracts more gulls and crows, and little piping plovers are just delicacies for those birds when they’re small,” she said. “If we can get the garbage away from where the chicks might be, then that may give them a bit more of a chance.
“It’s encouraging when you see that your observations do result in real change.”
Steven Price, the president of Bird Studies Canada, is planning to volunteer to help protect the nesting plovers on the Toronto Islands.
Price, who has a background in biology, said the lessons learned from other “plover guardians” across Canada will help as Toronto volunteers organize to protect the nest on the busy parkland.
“Elsewhere, including in Nova Scotia, there have been guardians or beach stewards who’ve been walking the beaches, asking people to walk in the wet sand and keep their dogs on a leash,” he said. “It’s been really impressive to see how beach-goers there have been so respectful of the plover nesting areas.”
Guarding the nesting area on the Toronto Islands is particularly important, as the plovers have already laid their eggs. Those eggs will need protection for the next seven to nine weeks. Moving forward, Price said conservation efforts should focus on protecting the sandy, pebble-filled beaches where the plovers nest.
“Lots of people are on those beaches, but if we can be aware of, and watch and then guard and interpret those nests, we can really go a long way in helping those shore birds come back,” he said.
Price says the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government are cooperating on efforts to raise awareness and protection for the plover, which he ultimately finds encouraging.
“Does this guarantee that the birds won’t be disturbed? Does it guarantee that they’ll fledge their young? No, but it’s probably necessary and helpful,” he said.
Information concerning Toronto Island: http://torontopipingplovers.blogspot.ca/
Information concerning Wasaga Beach: http://www.wasagabeachpark.com/index.php?action=display&cat=33