Piping plover flies back to Gros Morne

Paul Hutchings phutchings@thewesternstar.com
Published on May 4, 2011
A wildlife monitoring team has found the first piping plover of the year at Shallow Bay, near Cow Head in Gros Morne Park. — Submitted photo

COW HEAD  Gros Morne officials have completed their first survey of the piping plover migration Monday, finding one bird who made it back from down south.

Only finding one is not a concern at this point according to Gros Morne ecologist Darroch Whitaker because it’s still early. He expects they will find more in the coming weeks.

The piping plover started returning to beaches in Newfoundland about two years ago after a 40 year absence. They scrape out indentations in the sand for nesting and spend most of their time defending their nesting areas against predators, which include animals and humans. It’s the location of these nests that makes them hard to protect as they are so easily accessible.

Whitaker said it’s also the reason piping plovers are on the endangered species list.

“They (dig) nests right out in the open, right in harm’s way,” said Whitaker. “It’s a small nest in areas where people like to spend time, and (the birds) are vulnerable to dogs off leashes or ATV vehicles, or sometimes people can leave garbage behind that may attract other predators.”

He said ecologists work with nearby towns when they close a section of the beach to protect the nesting birds. The people of Cow Head, which near Shallow Bay, have been very supportive since the plover started returning to the bay in 2009.

“We don’t just close beaches, we meet with residents first to explain exactly what is going on,” he said. “The people of Cow Head have seemed quite happy to give up a section of the beach to help these birds.”

The piping plover usually needs an average of two months to raise a chick to be old enough to fly away on its own. When a bird moves into the beach, it spends some time looking for the perfect beach spot and setting up its territory. After about a week of this the bird will mate and lay its eggs. The eggs take about three weeks to hatch followed by four to five weeks of maturing. Then, usually in July, they will start migrating south to spend months in areas like the Gulf of Mexico or on the Atlantic side of the Florida Peninsula. There have been cases where the plovers have been found as far north as Virginia.

When a person finds a nest, a mother plover will actually fly away from the nest making loud screeching noises and possibly acting wounded in order to draw the person’s attention away from her nest area. When the person has followed the mother far enough, the mother will fly back and hope the human will keep walking away.

End to oil spill fears

Experts were worried that last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would affect the population, and some feared none would be seen in Newfoundland this year. But Monday morning’s findings put an end to those fears.

Whitaker said the oil spill took place just after the birds would have left that area and the beaches may have been cleaned up just enough for them to survive upon their return.

Whitaker is thankful for the support of local communities, especially Cow Head, and said the piping plover is well worth protecting.

“All birds have their intrinsic value, but these are nice looking birds, they are a great part of the sandy ecosystem and they’re one of the few animals that have adapted to nesting in areas like this one, they’re worth protecting,” he said.

He added that there could very well be other beach areas around the province where the piping plover has decided to move in. Whitaker said this is one of the challenges of monitoring these birds, because they could end up anywhere there is a beach without anyone knowing about it. Anyone who finds one can call the Canadian Wildlife Services.