Great Joy! Great Sadness!

Back on May 19th I did a post titled, “Secret Bird Assignment”. I indicated that I might write about it soon. This post is about that assignment.

On May 15th I received an email that started out with this sentence:

“Hi–Big surprise to all of us who have been surveying TM. We have a nest and the chicks are about to hatch (probably tomorrow or Friday).”

TM is Ten Mile Beach, a part of MacKerricher State Parks (California), and the nest was a Western Snowy Plover nest, a shorebird, federally classified as threatened. I’ve posted on Ten Mile Beach several times in my blog. You can find one of them here.

The big surprise was that Snowy Plovers had not nested on TM in eight years and that the beach is surveyed probably weekly for plovers and nests. It appeared that a pair of Snowy Plovers had nested under the radar . Adam Hutchins of State parks finally found the nest on May 14th. Biologists determined that the eggs(3) were about to hatch. That fact meant that the plovers had escaped detection for roughly 4 weeks.

The email was asking for help to monitor the nest. This was a big surprise to me. The people in the Snowy Plover monitoring program are a secretive group. They are secretive for good reasons. If word gets out that there was a nest, people would want to see it causing disturbances to the birds. In their efforts to protect the natural values of the area, State Parks have created hostile groups like dog owners and adjacent property owners that find the Snowy Plover a threat to their use of the park. Dog are not allowed on Ten Mile Beach.

Alison Cebula of State Parks had set up a nest watch spot 120 meters to the north of the nest and she needed to be relieved occasionally. Due to the fact that key plover monitors would be out of town for the weekend (fortunately for me) volunteers were needed to nest watch. I quickly signed up for Saturday afternoon.

On Saturday I learned from other volunteers that the bird on the nest was showing signs of “restless leg syndrome” (don’t know if you’ve seen that commercial) meaning the bird didn’t seem to be comfortable and was looking down frequently. Others had seen the nesting bird dart off and come back fast. This could be a sign that it was removing egg shells from the nest. I relieved Angela Liebenberg, Environmental Scientist for State Parks and her husband Matt and took up my position.

120 meters is a long distance. Even with a spotting scope it was hard to see the nest clearly. The afternoon heat waves on the beach caused a blurry view. The picture below, taken with a 300mm zoom lens and cropped, actually shows two plovers, one on the nest(brown kelp-center of picture) and one in back of it.

I observed the “restless leg syndrome” and the darting off. One of my jobs was to make sure people were kept to the wet sand and didn’t approach the nest. A jogger came by, 3 people on horses went by, people on the beach far to the south and people on the beach to the north but I didn’t have to direct traffic.

A little before 4:00PM while looking at the nest with a scope I noticed a little cotton fluff-ball bounce out of the nest. It was the first confirmation that an egg had hatched. This was a first for me. I got excited! I looked up the beach and noticed Alison walking towards me. I was mentally shouting for her to hurry up. As she approached I was waving one finger in the air. I apparently didn’t have my hand signals correct because she dropped to the ground thinking I was telling her to get down. When she finally got near I told her what I had seen but by that time the one chick had returned to the nest so we waited. First one came out—then two little fluff-balls appeared and then three. All of the eggs had hatched. Excitement and high(low) fives!

Great Joy!

Snowy Plover chicks are precocial and leave the nest within hours in search of food. The adults leads them to suitable feeding areas. They are not able to fly for approximately 4 weeks.

Alison and I watched the chicks for about an hour and just before I left, the male Snowy Plover came over near us. I was able to get this picture. 

I left the beach feeling upbeat.

On May 22nd, we received an email from Angela Liebenberg that stated:

”Based on Adam’s observation today of both the male and female plovers associated with the nest with no indication of chicks, and information from US Fish and Wildlife Service, it seems unlikely that the chicks have survived. However, it is possible that the birds may attempt another nest.”

Great sadness!

 

Epilogue:

Snowy Plovers can renest up to 5 times after losing their clutch or brood. This did not happen in this case. The female(a banded bird) was soon observed in Humboldt County at Mad River and Clam Beach. The male(also banded) has not been seen since. The leading theory based on footprints and dog tracks in the area where the chicks were last seen is that the dog disturbed the chicks and Ravens seeing that disturbance ate them. For a close-up look of the nest you can find the July issue of the newsletter for the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society here. Click on the July link and scroll down to the story.

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