My first day back on the East side of Lake Winnipeg started on a high. I arrived for an evening shift on Monday, June 20. Three of the four eggs of the only nest found in Manitoba this year had hatched out and the tiny chicks were already mobile. The following day, I arrived for the morning shift at 4:30 AM. I found the male about a meter from the nest and it was obvious the chicks were nestled under him. But was it three or four. I could not see the fourth egg in the nest, but it was difficult to observe even with binoculars. It would be mid-morning before I was finally able to count, 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 chicks. All four eggs had hatched successfully.
I had the late shift Wednesday - 12:30 - 9:30 PM. I met my colleagues and was informed that although the chicks were doing fine, the male was AWOL. This was unusual and disconcerting. Normally, after about a week the female plover leaves the family and the male is left to tend to their needs and protect them. By the end of the day the male had not returned. I had seen a Goshawk glide over the parking lot earlier in the day. Had the male plover been picked off by this hawk or come to some other dire outcome or had he taken off with another female we had seen frequenting the area? We were at a loss to explain his disappearance.
Thursday was uneventful. I had the early morning shift and one of my colleagues the late shift. The report at 9:30 PM was that although the male was still AWOL, the female and chicks had had a good day mainly feeding and preening and all were present and accounted for when she left.
I had the early morning shift on Friday, June 24. At 4:54 AM I wrote in my notes, "Took me a while to find mom, but finally found her nearly exactly where she was yesterday morning, just north of the nest enclosure fence. She peeped and I left immediately without disturbing her off her chicks. Will count later." About an hour later I observed one chick leave the confines of the female and waited anxiously to count the others. Except there were no others to count. The female raised up and began to walk and to my horror there were no other chicks. I was gutted.
Some time between 9:30 PM the previous evening and 4:30 AM Friday morning, under the cover of darkness, something had taken three of the four chicks. The likely suspects are nocturnal mammals like a raccoon, skunk or fox although none had been seen recently in the area. However, a crow had been hanging around the vicinity and although would have roosted at night perhaps in the post-dusk light of evening or pre-dawn light of morning could have attacked the family. With only one adult present to fend off the attacker she was only able to save one chick. Such is Nature's way.
One can only imagine how Friday morning's tragedy played out had a raccoon happened upon the female and chicks. She would have remained perfectly still with the chicks beneath her. Her camouflage would have made her blend in perfectly with her surroundings of sand and rock. But once detected as something more than a rock, she would have had the chicks scatter and she would have done everything in her power to lead the raccoon away, feigning a broken wing and peeping nearly hysterically. The raccoon would have had nothing to do with it. She would have buzzed the intruder, as it gobbled down one of the young and went for a second. She would have continued the good fight, but a second chick would by now have been snatched. The only thing left to do would have been to sacrifice the third chick and lead the fourth chick as far away from the intruder as possible and hope the intruder would not follow.
In the end the female saved one chick. For me and my colleagues on the Piping Plover Recovery Team it was indeed a Black Friday.