Teenager, goalie, budding ornithologist

As told to Jim MacInnis

I’ve been interested in birds since I was about five. I’m 14 now, and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading field guides. My parents used to strap me into a carrier and take me along with them on hiking expeditions through Whitehorse, northern Ontario and Prince Edward Island. My grandparents bought me my first pair of binoculars – real binoculars – when I was six. I love to go birding at all the big parks and spent my 13th birthday at Algonquin Provincial Park, up at 5 a.m., taking in the sights and sounds of local avifauna. My life list is now 198 species, but there’s one bird that stands out.

I found the piping plover. We know now that it was part of the only successful breeding pair in Ontario in 2007. My family was vacationing near Sauble Beach. It was Mother’s Day. As we walked along the beach, my mom spotted the male: “Look!” she said, “I think it’s a young killdeer.” Nope. It was a piping plover. I knew it was. Besides that, I knew how rare they were in this part of the world. This was big.

We returned to our campground, walking the hour and a half from the beach, as we did many times afterwards. Fighting every urge to alert the world, we resolved to come back in the morning and confirm that the plovers were at Sauble to stay.

We spotted the birds [the next day]: a male and a female piping plover lingering on the open beach. I filed a rare bird report. We called the Ontario Field Ornithologists and the Ministry of Natural Resources and told them what we’d seen. A find like this would usually have me itching to post online, but I knew the excitement that plovers would generate and that traffic might scare the plovers off – even prevent them from breeding. So when Jeff Robinson at the Canadian Wildlife Service called me and asked if I had posted anything about my find, I told him, “Of course not. I know better.”

Still, it wasn’t long before the troops descended on Sauble Beach. I think someone from every wildlife group in the province showed up. Jack Dingledine of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came all the way from Michigan. Everyone had one thing in mind: the safety of the birds. After confirming the validity of the rare bird report and witnessing the second egg appear in the scrape, the team agreed that the plovers were not going to abandon their nest; they needed to be protected. With the help of countless volunteers who called themselves Plover Guardians, we erected the gates of what was to become the plovers’ protected area of Sauble Beach. The guardians took shifts throughout the night, asking passersby to respect the nesting plovers. The Plover Guardians wore T-shirts that read, “Helping One Bird at a Time.”

Then the eggs started hatching and three of the four hatchlings survived. Three of four! I know from reading my field guides that the average survival rate of any one nest is about one to two eggs. When it came time to band the birds, it was my job to make sure that none of them, well, took off. Those chicks could move! I had to use all the skills I acquired playing goalie on the pond back home to stop them from getting away.

Over the following weeks my mom and I (my father had since returned home to Ottawa to work) put in about 100 hours each with the protection effort. The birds became like family. Maverick (as we called the boldest of the chicks) would habitually wander off and give his parents fits. We witnessed five short flights by the chicks before the plovers decided that it was time to move on.

The project wrapped up in late August. The plovers had flown the coop. Three full months after a casual walk on the beach we took down the enclosure we had built for five new members of the family. We hope that all the plovers are safe, but we miss them. With any luck, they will be back on Sauble Beach next year. Regardless, I’ll be here to greet them.