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Piping plovers return to area beaches

This tiny piping plover has been nesting on Grand Bay West beach in Port aux Basques. – © Geoff Musseau

By RYAN KING

PORT AUX BASQUES — This Spring has marked the return of the piping plover to beaches on the Southwest coast. The endangered seabird usually arrives in Atlantic Canada as early as mid-April, but generally arrives in Newfoundland a little later, where they are spotted starting in early May.

Russell Wall, the co-ordinator of the Piping Plover Project for Intervale, is one of the many who monitors the status of the piping plovers when they come back to our province to nest and breed.

“In Newfoundland, the majority of the population is between Port aux Basques and Stephenville/Stephenville-Crossing, with the highest percentage being between Port aux Basques and the Codroy Valley,” noted Wall.

That distribution can vary year to year however. This year there were three pairs observed at Black Bank in Stephenville, which is actually a significant number over recent years. On the Flat Bay peninsula and Sandy Point there are also usually a couple of pairs. The biggest population on the Southwest coast tend to nest between Grand Bay West beach, and J. T. Cheeseman’s Provincial Park.

“They are definitely in decline if you look at the historical picture, since probably back in 2000 or so. There are peaks and valleys, of course. I think they were as high as 20 to 25 pairs in Newfoundland in some years,” said Wall.

There is not an exact count yet, as Intervale will only receive the numbers at the end of the year from the government. However, the number of piping plovers so far appear to be lower than they have been in the last two or three years.

“What I haven’t heard is that there are sometimes pairs that will be at the Sand Banks in Burgeo – the provincial park there – as well as at Big Barachois in Burgeo. There are often a pair or two down in that area. I haven’t heard anything yet about those beaches yet this year. So, we are probably looking at somewhere between ten to twelve, or ten to fifteen pairs in the province,” said Wall.

The piping plover is important as an indicator species in inferring overall environmental health. Beyond this, Wall maintains they have intrinsic value as a Newfoundland bird.

“It’s a species that we’ve always had on our beaches. It really depends on how people determine value, if they have to have some use, or if them just existing is a use by itself. I think there’s definitely value in biodiversity, and value in bird watching, and the people that are interested in these species. We get a lot visitors every year that are coming to see the birds of Newfoundland, including the piping plover,” said Wall.

The birds are also fairly unique in their nesting habits compared to other shorebirds, and certainly forest birds, as they are not building their nests in a tree.

“It’s just a divot in the sand that is generally above the high water mark, towards the sandbank or the dune system. Sometimes they will go into the dune system a little way, depending on the beach and what habitat is available. But it is just an open nest on the ground that can be easily disturbed by walkers, dogs, ATVs, those type of issues,” said Wall.

The piping plovers normally nest with four eggs that usually hatch after four weeks.

“We currently have chicks running around on the beaches now. In the last week and a half or so, all the known nests between the Codroy Valley and Port aux Basques have hatched,” said Wall.

The exposed nature of the nests leaves them vulnerable even on the protected stretches of beaches. He was unaware of any damage to nests this year, though it is always a concern. For this reason, the beaches where the birds nest have warning signs posted.

“Those signs are definitely not always being followed. We see evidence of the ATVs on the beaches every time that we go out, with ATV tracks. It comes in varying degrees, whether it’s just some people are driving one spot to the other, and other people are going out to joyride, do doughnuts, and go up to the dunes and do jumps. That’s the really dangerous activities that we’re seeing for ATVs, because both for in terms of the nests, which are normally in the dune systems or very close to the dune systems, and in terms of the chicks, which are very small, cannot be easily seen. An ATV that is driving 30 miles per hour down the beach is not going to know that a little chick is in its path, or a nest,” Wall observed.

With only ten to fifteen pairs of birds coming to the region to nest, the loss of even one nest could have a grave impact on the species. While it is difficult to say with real certainty what causes the loss of a nest, Wall noted that they have seen ATV tracks going directly over a nesting site in the past.

“The evidence leads us to believe that in at least a few cases in the previous years we’ve had a nest or two that have been destroyed by ATVs. And the issue is beach by beach. The provincial parks, with their staff, and Grand Bay West beach and Second Beach, there are more people present. So, you’re not necessarily getting the same destructive habits that you are getting on the more remote beaches,” said Wall.

Something for residents to keep in mind is that if they can hear the distinctive peeping of the piping plover, it likely means they’re near the nest. If any shorebird is making a lot of noise, or pretending to have a broken wing, it can be taken as a sign that chicks are nearby, and in that case it’s best to head towards the wet sand.

“If you’re walking close to wet sand, around the watermark, you’re not going to be disturbing any nesting shorebirds on the beach. Keep your dog on the leash. Avoid trash in the area, try not to leave litter around. Litter attracts predators, attracts gulls, foxes, and other predators that could come into the area,” advised Wall. “And of course, obey the ATV regulations. It is very important not just for the piping plovers, but for the protection of the beaches, and the dune systems in general. That type of damage can be very destructive.”

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