Share the Beaches

by: Colin Stewart and Stephen Flemming

Piping plovers are an endangered shorebird. Endangered primarily because they breed on white sandy beaches. We don't know how many there used to be, but by the late '70s there seemed to be a lot fewer. In 1978 the decline was severe enough (and well enough documented) for them to be classified as threatened, and in 1985 they were considered to be endangered.

There are three populations of piping plovers--prairies, Great Lakes and Atlantic. All are in trouble. Indeed, the Great Lakes population is down to two pairs in Ontario. Of the total population (5,422) in 1991, 519 birds were found in Atlantic Canada (NB, 209; PEI, 110; NS, 113; the Magdalenes,76; Nfld, 7; and St. Pierre and Miquelon, 4).

A species will survive if, over the long run, each pair can produce enough young to replace themselves. Of course, birds breed for more than one year; and just because a bird makes it off the beach doesn't mean that it will survive to breed next year. But roughly speaking, if somewhere between 0.9 and 1.2 chicks per pair per year survive to fly south then the population will remain stable.

Last year the average outside of national parks was between 0.6 and 0.7 chicks per pair. Inside national parks the numbers are quite different -- over two chicks per pair per year survive to fly south. That rate would be enough to double the population, and see a significant rebound. But, the majority of beaches (and plovers) are outside national parks. The numbers are likely to go down again this year unless something is done.

Breeding is successful in national parks because sections of beaches used by plovers can be closed off during the breeding season. In some instances wire fencing is put around the nests to keep natural predators out. Realistically, with very few exceptions, we can't close off sections of other beaches. What we can do is indicate where the plovers are, and ask people to share the beaches.

All-terrain vehicles (ATVs), pets and people are the problem.

People walking on beached aren't the big problem early on. First, not many of us walk on the beaches that early in the year. Secondly, you probably won't step on the eggs.

Most people say they watch where they're walking so they'd see the eggs and avoid them. But let's set the record straight. These aren't pale blue robin's eggs in a stick nest. They are small, sand-coloured speckled eggs, usually in sets of four, laid in hollows in the sand. They occur anywhere between the high tide line and a few metres into the dune grass.

Pets (mostly dogs) are a bigger problem. Even if they don't destroy the eggs--they'll usually flush the bird and chase it up and down the beach. Meanwhile, the eggs are cooling, and the bird will spend time off the nest making up for the energy used in luring the "predator" away.

ATVs are the big problem. Each pass flattens a swath two to three feet wide for whatever distance the machine travels. With even a modest amount of traffic, destroying the nest becomes more likely than missing it.

Once the chicks hatch the problems become slightly different. The chicks have roughly 30 days to grow enough to be able to fly thousands of kimometers south. On cold, or, rainy days they mostly huddle to keep warm and minimize energy loss. They do relatively little feeding. That means on warm sunny days they have to feed like crazy. But warm, sunny days bring people out--in droves.

The other important behavioural factor occurs when predators approach. To the bird it really doesn't matter whether it's an ATV, a dog, or even a person, the adult bird does a broken wing routine to lure the threat away. The young stay very still. They don't feed.

Rover is unlikely to catch the bird--but both parents and young have lost out on valuable feeding time. ATVs are at least as big a problem, because now the young can be anywhere on the beach. And although we are unlikely to step on a bird, there are so many of us that even if no chicks are trod on, many die from starvation.

What can we do? We simply must learn to share the beaches. Once you know where a breeding pair is, give them a wide berth. During that three-month period, keep your dog on leash and keep ATVs off the beach. On most of the beaches we're referring to, both of these are legal requirements.

This year a number of organizations are working together to promote a "Share the Beaches" concept, through the Piping Plover Guardianship Program. It will involve 10 beaches in Nova Scotia, and 10 in Prince Edward Island. In Nova Scotia the Halifax Field Naturalists is the lead agency; in P.E.I. coordination is provided by the Island Nature Trust. Most of the funding to set the program up comes from an Environmental Partners Fund grant, but the Canadian Wildlife Service and Parks Canada are involved. Also taking part are the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry--Wildlife and Parks Divisions and Enforcement--and the Prince Edward Island Department of the Environment.

Volunteers will be monitoring the beaches for the plovers' return, and determining where they're nesting. With the assistance of the Department of Lands and Forestry, signs will then be placed around the nesting areas. These signs will request that people stay from these areas. Even with these areas off limits the greater part of the beach will still be useable. If necessary you'll be able to pass these areas by walking along the water's edge. Please don't linger.

The same volunteers will be on the beach periodically to talk to people and request their cooperation. In July or August, when the young are fledged, the signs will come down, and people can have the whole beach again. Hopefully, the result will be that these beaches will join national parks in contributing to the recovery of the piping plover.

The program includes the two Northumberland Straight beaches that still have plovers--Pomquet and Bowen Island. West of Halifax the program includes Martinique, Stoney, Conrads, and Rainbow Haven beaches. On the south shore it's Cherry Hill, Summerville, Beach Meadows, and Sandhills beaches. Plovers being somewhat unpredictable, this may change a bit.