Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
Piping Plover on the beach.

Today’s post comes from assistant ecologist and piping plover specialist, Ian Fife.

If you’ve visited some of our popular Great Lakes beaches, you may have noticed restricted areas for a tiny bird no larger than a sparrow.

What is important about these birds and why do we fence parts of our beaches to protect them?

Did you know that Ontario almost lost this species forever?

Historically, plovers were common summer residents on the shores of Great Lake in Ontario. By the early 20th century, between 70 and 90 breeding pairs of piping plovers may have nested along the shores of the Great Lakes.

Piping plover on the sandPhoto: Ian Fife

Their populations began to decline due to unregulated hunting and egg collecting. A decade later, federal laws prohibited the hunting and gathering of birds and their eggs.

After World War II, human coastal development and recreation increased rapidly, along with natural pressures such as climate and predation. Plovers declined to the point that, in 1977, the last known nesting pair was recorded in Ontario.

In 1986, plovers were officially considered extirpated in Ontario.

The return

plover on the beachPhoto: Brendan Toews

After incredible recovery efforts across North America, the first piping plover nest was found in Ontario in 2007…after a 30-year absence!

The first nest in 30 years marks a surprising event for wildlife and speaks to the conservation efforts recovery strategists put in place to protect these birds.

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To ensure plovers continue to recover, it is essential to protect their nests. Predators such as seagulls, crows, raccoons and foxes are very willing to eat the eggs or attack the birds in the nest.

To ensure that predators do not cause nest failure, a mini cage can be placed over the nest and eggs.

The birds don’t mind the cage. Plovers can easily pass through the holes, but larger predators cannot.

Once the pair has laid four eggs, a larger cage is placed over the nest, giving the pair more space to incubate. Finally, fencing is placed in the area to protect the important habitat.

beach with plover cagePhoto: Elizabeth Steadman

Without protected habitat, plovers cannot succeed in raising the next generation.

sharing the beach

This is where humans and animals, especially piping plovers, can overlap.

We like to lie in the sun on the sandy beaches, take long walks along the coast or play Frisbee, volleyball or the beach. We encourage our children to run around, build sandcastles, and spread a blanket for a picnic.

But plovers also need the beach.

plover and chickPhoto: Brendan Toews

Adults build their nest around stones, vegetation and driftwood. They rest between large pieces of wood left by the waves on the beach. Their chicks, like our children, run all over the beach and it is even difficult to keep track of them (no matter how closely the adult watches them).

But the number one priority for birds is food. Adults need to feed A LOT to gain weight for a long migration to the southeastern United States. Chicks take many risks on the beach because they have to grow and gain weight to prepare for their own migration.

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A natural beach protects chicks from danger

Female plover jumping through nest protective fence

Although we may not like having stones and sticks on the beach, they are an important part of bird habitat.

Plovers use all parts of a natural beach to complete their reproductive life cycle. That’s why many parks don’t remove rocks and driftwood from the beach. Protecting these beach features gives birds the best chance of survival and population recovery in the Great Lakes.

fenced section of the beachPhoto: Ian Fife

Maintaining the natural beach in our provincial parks not only supports ecological integrity, but also invites diverse birds and other wildlife species into the parks.

So if you come across a fenced beach area or protective nest cage, take a few steps back and enjoy your connection with these tenacious birds in their beautiful natural habitat.