Piping Plovers are small, endangered shorebirds in Manitoba. Its call is described as a "plaintive peep-lo" which made it the perfect name for this blog as it too is a plaintive call, a Call to Action.

02 July 2011

Black Friday

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.

28 June 2011

High Water Hurts Plovers

Go to the following link for an article in the most recent edition of the Interlake Spectator.

07 June 2011

World Birding Hotspot

Over the years, as I have traveled the Interlake from the West shore of Lake Winnipeg to the East shore of Lake Manitoba and back, I've often wondered how cool it would be to designate this area as a World Birding Hotspot or WBH. The diversity of birdlife I see in my travels never ceases to amaze me and it never gets old. Whether it's white pelicans gliding overhead, great egrets along the Shoal Lakes, ducks in the marshes or the myriad number of colourful songbirds, like the Baltimore oriole, eastern bluebird, goldfinch or red-headed woodpecker, it's a stunning spectacle.

I would love to see our provincial road map from the North perimeter highway, north to PTH 68, east to Lake Winnipeg and west to Lake Manitoba shaded in some colour to make it distinctive with World Birding Hotspot emblazoned in large bold type across the area. The designation would be strictly for promotion purposes, it would have no legal status. Those land owners lucky enough to live within its boundaries and know how special the area is would not have to worry about any type of government intervention or expropriation. It would simply be a way of telling the world what an incredible area the Interlake is for birdlife and there would be many more spillover benefits. These would include; increased economic tourism expenditures, improvements to existing infrastructure and the overall pride generated when one is part of something special.

In future, the Southwest corner of the province and the Churchill area could also be designated WBH's and appropriately shaded on the provincial road map. Let's face it, birding and its related industries is the single largest recreational activity in the world today and generates monetary benefits in the billions of dollars world-wide.

I'd be interested to know what you think of this idea. Does the idea have merit or have I been in the sun too long? Let me know.

02 June 2011

2011 International Piping Plover Breeding Census

This year marks the fifth count of piping plovers across North America since 1991. The census is conducted every five years and will run this year from June 4-17. In 2006, about 8,100 birds were counted, up from 2001. However, the debate continued from previous counts as to whether the increase was due to management efforts in the field or the census was simply more thorough and birds were found at sites previously not visited during other censuses.

However, no matter the reason, 8,100 birds is a critically low number as far as bird counts are concerned. Unfortunately, in Manitoba, our expectations for a sudden increase in numbers is low. The Manitoba population as decreased every census, from 80 in 1991 to 60 in 1996 to only 16 in 2001 and finally eight in 2006. Last year, a non-census year, we counted only seven plovers. This year, five different birds were identified during the second week of May and we've had no further reports. Now one might argue that Manitoba is a huge province and surely you have not been everywhere and seen every bird. And it's hard to argue against that logic. However, we have a pretty good idea of where to look for these birds. They stake out territories and build nests on wide, flat beaches around the South basins of Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba. Also, Manitoba has a very active birding community. According to the Manitobabirds group web site, they have 469 active members and post their sightings daily. No one from this group has contacted me with a sighting or posted a sighting.

So why the low numbers? We have been in a high water cycle for nearly 20 years. High water has reduced nesting habitat significantly. West Shoal Lake which accommodated the highest concentration of plovers in the province has been flooded for at least the past 10 years. Coupled with human disturbance of nesting areas and predation from other birds like crows and ravens and mammals like fox, raccoons, coyotes and skunks, well it's no wonder why our plover population has declined.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Through intensive management efforts, we have had 42 chicks fledge (able to fly on their own) in the past five years. That is well above the success rate biologists have deemed required to sustain a population of piping plovers. And, some of the chicks we have banded over the past two years are showing up near to the areas where they hatched out and we've even had a report of one of our banded birds turning up in Grand Marais, Michigan. So there is hope. I believe that if we can maintain a population in Manitoba, however small it may be, that once the high water cycle ends and nesting habitat is again exposed, our dwindling population will begin to slowly increase. Time is on our side. Now if precipitation and water levels could get back to normal, we'd be on our way.

I should have preliminary census results by the third week of June and will report back at that time.

25 May 2011

Plovers Banded as part of Gulf Oil Spill Study

Plover banded on Gulf Coast winter range
photo credit: Sidney Maddock
As part of a study into the effects of last year's Gulf Oil Spill, some piping plovers were marked on their winter range. One of the key bands was a green flag or tab band located on the left leg high as shown in the photo above.

Two of the three banded birds identified at Grand Beach have the green flags. This leads us to believe that they may be part of the Gulf Oil Spill study. Plover #1 was marked like this: left high - green flag, left low - black, right high - yellow, right low - black. Plover #2 was marked: left high - green flag, left low - red, right high - yellow, right low - black. We have sent this information to the study co-ordinator and hope to receive some feedback in due course. As soon as information becomes available I will let you know. Stay tuned.

23 May 2011

What have the bands told us so far?

In my last post, I had good news, bad news. The bad news was that we had identified only five piping plovers province-wide. The good news was four of the five had been banded.

Let's look at two of them in this post. The bands on the plover identified at Hillside Beach were read like this: left high - neon green, left low - no band, right high - metal, right low - red. The metal band is the key to where and when this plover chick was banded. However, you would need to either capture this bird, a risky undertaking, or have the bird observed closely through a powerful spotting scope so the band number could be read. As neither was done, we have to use the colour combinations in an effort to determine where and when these birds were banded.

Back in 2009, we banded five chicks at Grand Beach and three at Gimli. Last year, we banded three chicks at Grand Beach. Now back to the Hillside bird. Birds banded at Grand Beach were given a bicolour band, red over black, right low and the Gimli birds were black over red, right low. The tricky thing about the Hillside bird is that to make the bicolour bands we wrapped half a red band with special black tape used in pin-striping automobiles. That tape over a two year period may have worked itself free and now the band only shows red. Confused? Stay with me. Of the 11 plovers we banded, two were given neon (light) green bands, left high; one at Grand Beach, the other at Gimli.

So to summarize, we are fairly certain the Hillside bird was one of ours, but it could have been banded either in 2009 at Gimli or last year at Grand Beach. The only way we will no for sure is if we see it again and have an opportunity to read its metal band.

The bands on one of the plovers identified at Grand Beach were read like this: left high - no band, left low - no band, right high - metal, right low - red over black (bicolour). What does this tell us? Almost assuredly, this is one of the birds we banded at Grand Beach in either 2009 or 2010. Because it appears the band, left high has been lost, we have no way of telling if this plover was one of the chicks banded from a nest by the channel at Grand Beach or is the one chick we banded in 2009 from a nest in parking lot #5 at Grand Beach.

Our top sleuths are on the case and the investigation continues. I'll discuss the other two banded birds in my next post.


18 May 2011

East-side 5 West-side 0

No, this is not the score in some obscure hockey league play-off game. Unfortunately, it paints a rather bleak picture of the number of piping plovers identified so far around the province. On the East-side of Lake Winnipeg my colleagues have seen four plovers at Grand Beach and one at Hillside Beach. On the other side of the 'Big" lake I have been skunked and that goes for the East-side of Lake Manitoba too. I have surveyed Gimli Beach on several occasions, Willow Island a couple of times and Dunnottar Beach, Winnipeg Beach and the Riverton Sandy Bar once each. On Lake Manitoba, I have visited north to south, Watchorn Beach, Lundar Beach, Twin Lakes Beach, St. Ambroise Beach and I was stymied trying to reach the Clandeboye Bay Special Conservation Area due to high water. Of course high water on Manitoba's 'Great Lakes' has plagued us for a number of years now. It shrinks the available habitat for plovers and they either move on or nest unsuccessfully. However, the numbers are not all doom and gloom. Of the five plovers identified on the East-side, four of them were banded birds. We are still determining where and when they were banded. More on that subject to come.


08 May 2011

First Plovers Spotted

Grand Beach Channel looking west from East Beach
The first piping plovers have arrived. My colleagues Shauna and Maha identified two near the channel that separates west and east beaches at Grand Beach Provincial Park. They were seen Thursday, May 5. Interestingly, the first plovers sighted last year was on May 4 and yet the weather last year was completely different from this year. Last year, the ice on the lake was gone by mid-April, while this year large portions of the lake still have drifting ice. However, for the plovers, this is when they arrive, first week of May, no matter what the weather or ice conditions. Here's hoping I'll have similar luck on the west side of the 'Big' lake this coming week. Stay tuned.


07 May 2011

The Eagle Has Landed

"Eagle" on the beach in Gimli
 I began my plover surveys this week. On Tuesday, May 3, I visited Gimli Beach and was surprised to see a Bald Eagle sitting on a post in the middle of the beach. As I approached closer and closer it did not move. Very strange. Finally, I walked right up to it and realized it was not real. It was plastic and nailed to its perch. As if there were not enough problems for piping plovers trying to nest at Gimli Beach, now they had to contend with a menacing looking Bald Eagle. I needed to investigate what was going on.

As it turned out, the eagle had been placed on the beach last fall by staff of the RM of Gimli. It is an attempt to scare off gulls as a measure intended to reduce the incidence of e-coli in the lake adjacent to the beach. It would be hard to argue against this measure, but will it also scare away our plovers? After discussions with two bird biologists my mind was set at ease. Apparently, these types of attempts work initially, but as one biologist put it, "Birds learn pretty quickly what is real & what is not." So the mystery of the plastic eagle nailed to its perch has been solved. Hopefully, it will not deter any of our endangered piping plovers from making a nesting attempt on Gimli Beach as they did in 2009.


26 April 2011

So Many Questions, So Few Answers

Hello to all my fellow plover-lovers out there. I wanted to let everyone know that I will be returning as a Guardian this summer. Through this blog, I hope to keep you informed on how our birds do this season. As I am a little more familiar with the ins and outs of blogging, I hope to keep you up to speed in a timely manner. It is also my intention to post a few more photos and video clips this summer.

The plovers are only a week or two away from arrival and we have many unanswered questions. Did last year's Gulf Coast oil spill have any effect on the wintering range of the plovers? How has last fall's devastating storm or 'Weather Bomb' effected the beaches and nesting habitat for our returning birds? Will any of the three chicks we banded last July, return? Will any of the eight we banded in 2009 return and will the one that showed up in Grand Marais, Michigan last year return there or turn up elsewhere? As this is an 'International Census' year, conducted every fifth year since 1991, will the North American population be up, down or about the same as 2006? The answers to all these questions should come to light over the course of the summer and I hope to bring you those answers as soon as they become evident and available.

Last, if in your travels and explorations you identify a plover or discover a nest, the Recovery Team would like to be informed immediately. Please call the Manitoba Piping Plover Stewardship Program at 204-945-6817. Thank you.

Ken Porteous
2011 Piping Plover Guardian