Shortly after moving from Brampton to Wasaga Beach in 2019, I became busy looking for new activities in this Naturalists’ and Photographers’ paradise.
During my first summer at Wasaga Beach I joined a group of volunteers, whose job it was to help protect a bird species which is in danger of becoming extinct. The Piping Plover is a shore, beach and dune bird which nests in only very few locations in North America today. I jumped at the chance of becoming a Piping Plover Guardian at Wasaga Beach in 2020. More about this program later.
I had my first encounter with this little bird at the tip of the Long Point Peninsula in Lake Erie, where I found the first nest on Lake Erie in May 1965. I was visiting there as a Naturalist and Bird Bander with the Ontario Federation of Naturalists.
Long Point is a gigantic sandspit and dune formation created by water-borne sediments, mostly sand and mud. It juts into the Lake for about 40 kilometers and is about one kilometer wide. It is private property and can be travelled only by four-wheeled vehicles, or reached by boats. The public is prohibited from visiting it. On the mainland shore are the towns of Port Rowan, Turkey Point and Port Dover.
Piping Plovers nest primarily along the Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland to South Carolina, in Ontario on all Great Lakes, in Michigan on Lake Michigan, in Wisconsin on Lake Superior, and throughout the northern Great Plains from the Prairie provinces to Colorado.
On the Great Lakes the Piping Plover vanished a few years after I found the nest at Long Point in 1965. They were already considered an “endangered species” headed toward extinction. There were only about 16 nesting pairs known in Canada, and that changed when in 1977 the last nesting pair was recorded in Ontario. They became virtually extinct, and in 1986 were declared as extirpated in the province.
My Long Point experience left me with a long-lasting interest in the Piping Plover
It took 30 years before finally in 2007 another Piping Plover nest was found on the shores of Georgian Bay at Sauble Beach. By 2017, Piping Plovers nested again on the shores of all of the Great Lakes for the first time in decades. Various recovery programs had increased the Piping Plover population in Canada to about 76 known pairs.
Nests have been documented in diverse locations such as Wasaga Beach, Sauble Beach, Tiny Township, Manitoulin Island, Darlington, North Beach, Presqu’ile, Limestone Islands, Port Elgin and Toronto Islands, as well as on the Lake of the Woods.
The Piping Plover Recovery Program
The Program is co-ordinated by the “Friends of Nancy Island and Wasaga Beach Park” a non-profit, charitable organization dedicated to furthering educational and interpretive programs.
The organization of the program is crucial to protect the Piping Plovers and their nesting areas from natural predators and the many thousands of visitors to the beaches. The volunteers in 2019 received special training on Nancy Island in all aspects of their jobs, including in the daily documentation of the birds’ activities.
The Piping Plovers of the Great Lakes are banded with a colorfully unique band combination which is used for individual identification. This allows us to accurately monitor the population as it fluctuates and to track individuals each season. Piping Plovers lay their eggs every other day with an average clutch of four eggs. Enclosures are placed over each nest for protection from predators and humans. Chicks are banded by agency staff at 7-10 days of age. Volunteers have even named individual birds and know exactly when “Pepper” and “Salt”, or “Tweety” and “Flash” are together again in each season!
Here is a link to a short video on banding Piping Plovers at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park:
Using these bands, the movement of our Wasaga Beach chicks can be tracked after they learn to fly and migrate at the end of the season. In winter Piping Plovers migrate south to the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean.
We learned that our chicks are establishing new nesting sites across Ontario and even into the United States. This spread signifies that the recovery programs are successful, because many of these new locations, though historical nesting sites, had not witnessed Piping Plovers within the last 80-100 years.
Each season varies but over-all the recovery program at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park is also an example of how a community can team together to save an endangered species from the brink of extinction.