Every morning in May, Don Kennedy can be found somewhere along Sauble Beach, on the lookout for newly arrived piping plovers, or checking up on the ones he’s already spotted.
When he gets home, he sends a daily email update to volunteers and Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry employees on the plovers’ whereabouts and activities: whether they’ve started scratching out a nest, for example, or if they’re preparing to lay their eggs.
“This is my 11th year,” Kennedy, a retired social-services worker, says, “so I have a pretty good handle on what their behaviours are and what their criteria is for nesting.”
Problem is, the endangered plovers’ preferred nesting sites happen to be pristine (and heavily trafficked) beaches.
Last year, Sauble Beach, on the shores of Lake Huron, was home to four nesting couples. (There were 75 pairs in total across the Great Lakes, according to Francie Cuthbert of the University of Minnesota.) So far this year, three have dug nests while one lone plover is still looking for its mate. It’s a small sign of recovery; the species was once reduced to fewer than 20 nesting pairs in the entire Great Lakes region.
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Still, Kennedy says, “The last few years have been a catastrophe here for chicks fledging. Either the gulls eat ’em or the crows eat ’em or the eggs get washed over with sand and the adults abandon the nest.”
Diligent volunteers like Kennedy have taken to monitoring the plover nests and surrounding areas, to ensure the birds can raise their young in safety. There’s even a dedicated group — the Plover Lovers — that watches over the birds, making sure no one disturbs them.
Alicia Fortin became a Plover Lover in 2015, when the birds returned to her hometown of Port Elgin. She became passionate about protecting the plovers, and last year became the organization’s volunteer coordinator.
“If you spend the time watching these birds, they learn about their habits and see their behaviours and you start to learn their lives and connect with them,” she says. Volunteers sit in four-hour shifts during the nesting season, guarding the birds and educating people about them.
The small population size means they often see the same plovers several years in a row. Many of the birds have their legs banded so the volunteers can trace them back to their place of origin. Some even get nicknames — like Pegleg, who’s missing a foot.
“Asked Alicia to spend some time with no bands and Pegleg down S at volleyball,” Kennedy wrote in a recent email dispatch. “They’ve been together over a week but I haven’t seen any serious sex. The location is lousy for following tracks and so are the dunes. But if they nest down there we can expect implications.”
Translated for readers not part of the plover-loving community: Alicia refers to Fortin, whom Kennedy wants to check up on “no bands” (an unbanded plover) and Pegleg. Both have been hanging out on the beach volleyball court but haven’t laid eggs yet. Kennedy speculates they could move elsewhere — but if not, beachgoers may be upset (the “implications” he refers to).
“The town’s going to have a bird, figuratively speaking, when this happens,” he says. “That’ll go over like a lead balloon if the ministry puts up a perimeter, but what the hell do you do? I would like the birds to go north but they haven’t moved in two weeks so I think they’re going to do whatever they’re going to do down there, which will make life interesting.”
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The MNRF protects the nests of piping plovers with exclosures — small fences that keep predators (and tourists) out but let plovers in. They also set up a rope barricade in a 50-metre radius around that. Even so, young plovers have a high risk of mortality: last year, none of the chicks from four breeding pairs survived, Fortin says. Just three made it to maturity in 2015, and since then, only one has been spotted elsewhere.
Kai Chan, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, says the plover’s small population may be what inspires such devotion among volunteers. “It’s only when we have that really tangible human-animal connection that most people can devote themselves so wholly to a project like that,” he says.
“They have developed over time a relationship with that species and with those birds. There’s a connection that’s possible with small numbers of individuals that psychologically is not possible with abstract notions like ecosystems.”
Chan, whose work focuses on the intersection of human and natural systems, says all endangered species are reliant on conservation to some extent, unless the thing that endangered them in the first place can be eliminated. In the cases of overhunting and overfishing, for example, the solution is obvious, if difficult to achieve. With the piping plover, however, preserving their nesting spots would mean banning people from Great Lakes beaches.
Without human intervention, the plover nests would be exposed to the wild romps of beachgoing tourists; predatory crows, gulls, and merlins; and prowling foxes. It would almost certainly lead to their extinction.
“There are some species that it appears are going to need special attention and it’s not easy to say when you can quit or if you can quit,” says Cuthbert, who has devoted much of her career to the piping plover. “Where others like the bald eagle has really taken off. They’re off the endangered species list, they don’t need special attention, but it may not be the case with the plovers.”