Peeking at Plovers
It’s been a long, busy summer, and I’ve been out on the Spit many times since discovering our little plovers’ nest. Back on April 9th, I was out with USFWS biologist William Ritchie to “float” the eggs – floating is exactly that. You put the eggs in a jar of room temperature water and see where they float. Based on where they are in the water (bottom = freshly laid, surface = close to hatching), biologists can estimate how old the eggs are and when they will hatch! It isn’t the most precise effort, but it did give us an idea of when to expect the eggs might release the little balls of fluff that are plover chicks.
It also isn’t the easiest thing to do. The adults are not happy about people being close to them, and run away to safety. And you can’t just walk up to a nest, since crows and ravens (corvids) are smart and curious enough to follow a direct trail… or just watch you if they happen to be around. AND you can’t actually SEE the nest because it is so camouflaged, so there is some trial and error in approaching it! We use similar techniques that the corvids use, and follow plover tracks.
So, Will and I carefully checked around to make sure no corvids were hanging out, then carefully crept roundabout to the general area of the nest, then even more carefully floated the eggs. No pictures of that, we wanted to get the work done and get out as quickly as possible. It was a nice day and not too cold, but every moment the parents are away from the nest increases the chances of failure. Will determined the eggs were likely to hatch the last week of April, and then we carefully packed up equipment and snuck away, using a small broom to brush our tracks out of the sand to leave less evidence for curious corvids.
I had my date, and set the calendar! As the weeks went by, ODFW and I took turns checking on the nest, usually seeing the female only through spotting scopes to avoid disturbing her. Our beach rangers let the public know what all the signs were for, and beach visitors were (mostly) respectful of these birds’ privacy, for which I am very thankful.
Then I got the email from ODFW. Their Friday nest check had the female off the nest, foraging, and the male wasn’t sitting in her place. That is unusual. Winds were high, though, and ODFW didn’t linger on the beach. All weekend I worried over our little plovers, wondering if A/W/A:V and his unbanded female had lost their nest. I went out on the following Monday to check the nest – to confirm or deny that it was still there.
The beach had changed.
What had been a relatively flat sandy spot was now an uphill slope, with no sign of eggs or nest (or my wildlife camera). To say I was sad is an understatement, but at the same time this is what happens out on our Oregon Coast. It is a rough, rugged place, and early nests are often lost to the weather. Since my wildlife camera vanished as well we don’t know exactly what happened to the nest. Did some people walk by on a windy day, bumping the female off the nest, and by the time she came back the sand had blown over her eggs? Was it a crow, or the resident beach coyotes? Was it simply such a windy gust that no matter how tight she sat she couldn’t keep the sand off her precious eggs? I don’t know, and never will (unless that camera washes up somewhere).
We continued to survey the Spit for any sign of plovers; they usually nest again after losing a nest, and will keep trying until it gets too late in the breeding period. After late July there just isn’t enough time for the birds to incubate, hatch, and raise their young to fledging before winter. I found some tracks shortly after the nest was lost, but then even those too disappeared.
And the beach continued to change. The southern half of the spit that had been such nice habitat early in the season kept getting more sloped as the winds sculpted the sand around driftwood. The northern half started getting more ideal, with flat expanses and bits of shell. Even though this nest attempt failed, it shows us that Nehalem is indeed attractive to western snowy plover and the HCP plans were not in vain. OPRD and USFWS have opted to lift recreation restrictions for the remainder of the breeding period, since there have been no sign of plovers all throughout May and June.
As for me, I’m planning some habitat restoration to get that beach a little wider, to give the birds a bit more room away from the wind, the predators, and the people. Maybe next year A/W/A:V will come back and try again. Or maybe one of his cousins. Either way, I’ll be waiting with a spotting scope to help them as best I can.