Piping Plover | ShutterGlow Photo

Photo from ShutterGlow Photo

It’s been a rough decade for the piping plover, an adorable little shorebird found only on North American beaches. Of the two distinct subspecies born and raised in Canada, one builds its nests among the five Atlantic Canadian provinces bordering the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

After arriving in Atlantic Canada in early spring, these plovers set up camp on Prince Edward Island, the Magdalen Islands, New Brunswick’s east coast, Nova Scotia’s north and south shores, and less so on Newfoundland’s south and west coasts.

The light grey or pale brown plumage of these plovers makes them very much at home on the beach, allowing them to blend in with dry sand and avoid the watchful eyes of their predators. They range from 15-19 centimetres in length and their wingspans are roughly twice that, making them the size of your average sparrow. They satisfy their modest appetites with insects and aquatic invertebrates.

Unfortunately, the piping plover has a long history on Canada’s endangered species list. Its eastern Canadian population was listed in 1985 and since then it has been on a steady decline, going from 481 adults in 2001 to a pitiful 389 in 2013. Between 2003 and 2013, their population has declined a staggering 23 per cent. In spite of five decades of research and conservation efforts, this population has shown no signs of recovery.

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Predation is a leading cause of the plover’s disappearance, which would appear to absolve us of guilt, but as is often the case, the devil’s in the details. Plover eggs, chicks and even adults are hunted by a score of small predators: scavengers such as the crow, fox, raven, gull, raccoon, coyote, skunk and weasel, among others. These scavengers have enjoyed artificially high populations because they’ve made a good living off of our garbage. On a human dominated coast, the predators have become abundant, at great cost to the piping plover. Also on this list of predators are our pets – cats and dogs – which do their share of damage. Of 174 nests studied on Long Island between 1937 and 1958, plover eggs enjoyed a 91 per cent hatch rate. Current estimates in Atlantic Canada put the number at less than 55 per cent.

We have direct impacts on this struggling shorebird.

Additionally, we have direct impacts on this struggling shorebird. We have been developing coastlines and making extensive use of their beaches during the spring and summer months, sunbathing or swimming to our hearts’ content during the plover’s breeding season. Our constant and enthusiastic presence is causing them to avoid their best breeding grounds, a behavioural change this species cannot afford.

Those who ride horses on the beach, or take their four-wheelers and trucks onto the sand or into the coastal grasses, also set back recovery. Heavy off-road vehicles such as these have the potential not only to scare away piping plovers, but to damage beach ecosystems themselves. The unchecked presence of people results in lower reproductive rates and nesting failures.

Finally, there is always the threat of natural disasters and oil spills, the latter becoming increasingly possible as offshore oil and gas development expands in Atlantic Canada.

Thankfully, some regions within Atlantic national parks have been designated as plover critical habitat and are thus protected, but with their population continuing to plummet, it’s apparent more needs to be done on behalf of these humble flyers. Signage has been erected in plover sensitive areas, beaches have been seasonally closed, education programs have been widespread and still their population declines.

The piping plover is an excellent example of how dangerous unintended consequences can be, everything from taking your four-wheeler down the beach, to enjoying a bonfire in the sand with friends and family. Public awareness of the piping plover’s plight could be its last best hope for survival.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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