PEI

Plover lovin': Things to know about P.E.I.'s endangered piping plover

This endangered species on P.E.I. is tough to spot and weighs only about as much as half a deck of cards — the piping plover.

'They care fiercely about their chicks and their nests and they're so vulnerable'

Only 61 piping plovers have been recorded in extensive surveys of Island beaches in 2016. (Submitted by Island Nature Trust )

This endangered species on P.E.I. is tough to spot and weighs only about as much as half a deck of cards — the piping plover.

"I think they're amazing," said Julie-Lynn Zahavich, stewardship coordinator with the Island Nature Trust. She's worked with the tiny shore birds for the past seven years.

Zahavich shared some fascinating facts about piping plovers.

They are rare

Island Nature Trust has recorded only 61 individual piping plovers on P.E.I. this year. That's up from 54 counted last year, but still not what Island Nature Trust would like to see. They were listed in 1985 as endangered in Canada. 

The most plovers ever recorded on P.E.I. in 2001 was 112.

They are long-distance travellers

They return to P.E.I. every spring from journeys south — P.E.I.-banded plovers have been spotted in Florida, Cuba or the Bahamas in the winter.

Plovers typically lay four eggs per year, but if the nest isn't successful they may try again. (Submitted by Island Nature Trust )

They nest all along P.E.I.'s North Shore, from Alberton Harbour to East Point. Nests have also been found on Boughton Island and in Wood Islands on the southeast shore. 

This year for the the first time since 1984, a pair has also been nesting in on Glenwood Island near West Point on P.E.I.'s south shore.

Build it and she will come

Male plovers arrive back on P.E.I. first, in late March through June, and will make several nests for his female to choose from — Zahavich has seen them make more than 20!

"He uses his body and his legs to scrape out a little divot in the sand," said Zahavich. "The female will choose her favourite one." 

'Full clutch'

Typically plovers usually lay four eggs once a year. They lay one egg every two days, then sit on them to incubate for 28 days — a task the male and female share. 

Piping plovers are distinct from other shore birds with their orange legs and beaks, a ring of black around their necks and a little black 'eyebrow.' (Martin Paquet/Island Nature Trust)

If something happens to the first eggs, the pair will nest again, up to three times. 

Creating eggs, which each weigh about six grams, is tough work and leaves the female depleted, so it's important they be undisturbed so they can feed, Zahavich said. 

Camouflage eggs

Plovers lay nests on the open beach between sand dunes and the high tide line, Zahavich notes. 

Sitting on the chicks for the first few days is a job shared by the plover pair. (Len Wagg Photography)

"They nest in cobble-y areas. So they like sand but they also like some bits of shell and rock because they like for their eggs to blend in with their habitat." 

Even experts like Zahavich sometimes have a tough time finding their nests, she said. 

The kids grow up so fast

A few hours after they are hatched, they are "up and feeding themselves," Zahavich said, unlike many other chicks who are fed by their parents for the first few days.

Plovers eat marine worms and beach insects. 

"They care fiercely about their chicks and their nests and they're so vulnerable," said Zahavich.

Daddy Day care 

As soon as the chicks are hatched and brooded over for a few days, mama plover is out of there! She's hungry, said Zahavich.

Every five years there is an extensive plover count, during which every beach where plovers have ever been spotted are surveyed. (Submitted/Bird Studies Canada)

The male plover stays with the hatchlings for the first three weeks or so, until they're ready to fly on their own. 

"Often you'll see groups of juveniles with an adult, so it's probably a male," Zahavich said.

High fidelity 

The birds do manage to pair up again and again with the same partners, though, Zahavich said, and also usually return to the same site.

Peep-lo

The plovers call "sounds kind of like a flute, so I guess that's why they're called piping plovers," said Zahavich. It sounds like of like "peep-lo," she said. 

Finding these chicks among the rocks is a bit like a game of Where's Waldo? (Len Wagg Photography)

They need help

Island Nature Trust puts up large signs on Island beaches when and where plovers are nesting and feeding, but people don't always respect them, Zahavich said. 

There are fewer than 6,000 piping plovers left in the world. (Emily Putz)

"We do find a lot of disturbance, signs of disturbance, around our nesting areas. Vehicle tracks, dog tracks and human footprints," she said with a hint of frustration. The Nature Trust tries to educate people about the importance of protecting the helpless little birds. 

Their main predators are crows and foxes, and nests sometimes get washed away in storms. If there's too much activity around nests, adult plovers may abandon them, Zahavich said. Sometimes roaming dogs destroy the nests, too. 

"To think about losing them, I think that would be quite sad," she said. 

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the piping plover is P.E.I.'s only endangered species. In fact, it is one of several.
    Aug 09, 2016 12:22 PM AT

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca