Another Piping Plover breeding season has come to a close at Sauble Beach, with a disappointing outcome for the Plover Lovers volunteer group. Of 18 eggs laid in five nests, only 6 chicks hatched and none survived to fledging. Three of the five nests were lost before the hatch due to abandonment or high water.
This year was particularly challenging because of an unprecedented loss of adult Piping Plovers. It is believed that 3 adults were taken by predators, including two well-known birds, Mr. Lonely and Port Boy. Both of their nests, with four embryos in each, were abandoned following the predation events as the female was left to take on the impossible task of incubating alone. Another nest hatched four chicks on June 17, but the disappearance of the female parent the following day resulted in the male caring for the young alone. By June 20, all four chicks disappeared. Predation is likely the cause, but high winds and rough weather could have also contributed.
Most of the Piping Plover adults at Sauble Beach were returning birds that had a history of nesting at this location. Volunteers were excited to continue following their stories and to share them with beachgoers. One pair had an especially incredible journey this year, despite its sad ending. Neither had success nesting in Sauble Beach last year, and their bad luck continued this season with their first nest, which was lost to high waters on June 7. They chose a location that was dangerously close to the lake, and with several days of high winds and rain, the eggs were washed over.
After the loss of their first nest, this couple made a second attempt further from the shoreline. Two eggs were laid in what was known as Nest 5, but only one hatched overnight on July 17. It seemed as though the parents abandoned the second egg as they cared for their healthy young chick over the course of a few days. On July 20, while monitoring the Piping Plover family, our youngest volunteer Grace Dyer exclaimed that a second chick was hatching! With a lack of incubation for nearly three days, the hatching of this egg was a miraculous and extraordinary event. It could also spark a discussion about the timeline of egg viability and nest incubation in Piping Plovers. Very sadly, the “miracle” chick was lost to a crow the next morning, and its sibling was taken by a Ring-billed Gull two days later. This marked the end of the volunteer monitoring program for the season.
The 2016 season highlighted the importance of first nest success. Two of the five nests were second attempts, neither of which were successful. Second nestings require a tremendous amount of additional energy from the parents, particularly for the female as she lays eggs weighing 1/3 her body weight. As a result, it is common for a second nest to have fewer eggs than the usual four, and for the viability of the eggs to be lower than that of a first nesting. Re-nesting also puts more pressure on volunteer groups and MNRF resources, with the breeding season being stretched by weeks and hatch dates pushed to the busiest weeks of the summer. With more beachgoers come more gulls and crows, which settle within the Piping Plover perimeter fences to avoid the crowds. This makes survival for a newly hatched chick nearly impossible. Consequently, ensuring first nest success earlier in the summer should be a priority in managing recovery efforts.
It has become clear that predators are the major threat to the Piping Plovers at Sauble Beach. Several culprits roamed the beach these past months, including Merlins and foxes. Metal exclosures have been extremely effective in protecting eggs, as no nests were disturbed by predators this season. New challenges arise after the hatch because Piping Plover chicks are precocial, meaning that they leave the nest (and the exclosure) very soon after hatching. Plovers less than 10 days old are very susceptible to predation by gulls and crows, as witnessed with the Nest 5 chicks. To address this, the MNRF has implemented predator deterrent trials, including Mylar flags and dead gull decoys within perimeter fencing. The Plover Lovers group hopes that experimentation with various deterrent techniques will lead to improvements in predator management, giving chicks a better chance of survival after the hatch.
Even with the losses and disappointment this season, the volunteers’ efforts were not in vain. The program showed significant growth this year in terms of public education and outreach, an important part of the group’s mandate. Hundreds of hours were put into monitoring the Piping Plovers and collecting data, and over 2000 beachgoers stopped to talk to our volunteers about the birds. Denis Langlois of the Sun Times provided thorough coverage of the events at the beach, drawing in readers and even inspiring some to visit the Piping Plover nesting sites. Continuing collaboration with organizations such as the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort is allowing Plover Lovers to share data with domestic and international partners. The time and energy put in by volunteers and other plover-loving individuals is integral in the recovery of this species. Plover Lovers cannot thank the monitors and supporters enough for their contributions!
With another season come and gone, it is time now to look ahead. Next year, Plover Lovers hopes to grow its volunteer base and reach out to more visitors and members of the local community. The Piping Plovers face many challenges at Sauble Beach, and it is important for beachgoers and the public to be aware of their fight for survival. Recovery to a sustainable Great Lakes population is a long and difficult process, but through the work of dedicated volunteers, it is feasible. And to those of us who watch these amazing little birds day in and day out, it’s absolutely worth it.