A band of dedicated volunteers works round the clock to save the embattled piping plover, a bird that favours waterfront views, fusses over its food, and builds nests on the sand.

Piping plover in water

Piping plover. Credit: Scott Fairbairn

By Denis Seguin

Stewart Nutt is sitting in his lawn chair. It’s past midnight on Canada Day, but he is not alone on this beach, a 15-minute drive north of Southampton, Ontario. Up and down the Lake Huron shoreline – north toward Sauble Beach, south toward MacGregor Point Provincial Park – fireworks shriek into the blackness.

Somewhere in the dunes behind Nutt, hunkered under its exclosure, a sparrow-sized shorebird roosts on a clutch of four speckled eggs. The exclosure – essentially a cage in reverse – keeps the bird, its mate and their incipient brood safe. The chainlinks are spaced to let the nesting birds come and go and keep out predators, such as raccoons, foxes, crows and gulls. An extra layer of protection, a plastic mesh that extends almost a metre underground on all sides of the exclosure, prevents foxes from burrowing into it.

But, as with so many species, this bird’s principal threat is us.

Endangered in Ontario, the piping plover had all but disappeared from the Canadian shores of the
Great Lakes, due to a combination of factors all linked to human activity. But Charadrius melodus – all 64 grams of him, and a little less of her – seems to be making a comeback, thanks to another human activity: volunteerism.

Nutt, a retired school board principal, will sit here until the last Canada Day revellers have departed. Then, around sunrise, a fellow piping plover guardian will relieve him and continue with the same three tasks: greet, meet and explain. Enjoy the beach but kindly be aware that an endangered species has a nest site metres away – one of only three in the region this season. Please keep your dog on its leash. Do not enter the signed areas. And if you are so inclined, tell your neighbours and friends about the bird. “People are great,” says Nutt, who has been active in the conservancy community for many years. “They only have to see the little chicks once to recognize this is a fragile bird.”

A lot of human effort is expended to help this tiny creature. After all, it is just one of 193 species at risk in Ontario: 78 plants, 42 birds, 10 mammals, 27 amphibians and reptiles, 27 freshwater fishes and 20 invertebrates. Asked why the piping plover gets this much attention, Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature, is frank: “It doesn’t hurt that it’s cute.” Schultz is unapologetic about tugging people’s heartstrings, because the statistics are alarming. Nutt and the approximately 65 volunteers in the Southampton region outnumber their wards –three breeding pairs, with three small nests scratched out in the sand – by more than 10 to one.

For millennia, the piping plover has steered a course from its wintering habitats on the Atlantic coast south of the Carolinas and along the arcing shore of the Gulf of Mexico – from the Florida panhandle around and down to the hyper-saline Laguna Madre of northeast Mexico – to its breeding grounds in three regions: the Great Plains of the United States and Canada, the Great Lakes and, to the east, New England and Atlantic Canada. Over time, the bird has diverged into two distinct subspecies, the Great Plains and the Atlantic. The plovers breeding along the U.S. and Canadian shores of Lake Huron – such as the birds in the dunes behind Nutt – are the Great Plains variety. According to Jeff Robinson, protected areas coordinator for the Ontario Region of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), only about 60 to 70 breeding pairs inhabit the entire Great Lakes area.

The piping plover is a victim of its specialization. The same real estate cliché that orders human habitation – location, location, location – works against this bird. Its nesting site is a narrow swath of beachfront property, rarely more than 60 metres from the water’s edge. The bird is also a choosy eater, feeding only on the invertebrates revealed by the sweep of waves and tidal action. And its nests are simple and exposed – no sticks, no delineation. Take a short cut between dunes and you may walk right over one.