How a pizza pan helped save endangered piping plover eggs
The tiny sand-coloured shorebirds are very particular about their nests, but they were fine when a pizza pan came to rescue their eggs.
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BRACKLEY, P.E.I. — A pair of endangered piping plovers whose eggs were threatened by the tide at a P.E.I. beach had an unlikely savour — a pizza pan.
Kerry-Lynn Atkinson, a resource management officer with Parks Canada, was recently working at Covehead beach in the Brackley area of P.E.I. National Park when she saw the tides were climbing dangerously close to a piping plover nest containing three eggs.
"The adults were running around. They were peeping and they were upset, so it showed me that they were definitely devoted to the nest. They weren't going to abandon it. So I had to do something," said Atkinson in an interview.
"We had to figure it out and we had to do it quickly."
Piping plovers are an endangered species in Canada, with only 48 birds counted on P.E.I. in June of this year. The Island has had an average of 60 birds per year over the last 10 years.
Atkinson said tides had been expected to rise even higher, so she consulted with a number of experts and literature and determined the best course of action was to move the nest further away from the shoreline.
But because the tiny sand-coloured shorebirds are very particular about their nests, she wanted to relocate it with minimal disruption. Plovers often line their nests with broken shells and rocks to act as distinguishing markers.
"Recognizing that those were most likely very important to these birds, I wanted to move as much of the sediment and markers as I could so that when they did go back to the new nest location, it would be as familiar to them as it could be," said Atkinson, adding that nests usually contain four eggs, so these birds must have lost one somehow.
"So I went home that night and I was thinking, 'What is going to work? How are we going to do this?' I was looking around the kitchen trying to find what was going to be the most useful thing for me, and it just popped out — a pizza pan."
The next day, the plovers watched as Atkinson scooped the pizza pan under their nest and moved it about a metre back.
"The plovers were running around. One in particular was pretty upset, but we definitely wanted those adults there because we wanted them to see what we were doing. We didn't want them to come back and wonder what had happened," said Atkinson of the relocation.
Atkinson admits that when it came time to move the nest, she was "shaking."
"I was thinking, 'Man, this is an endangered species. If this doesn't go right, this is going to be detrimental,'" she said. "But I also knew that if I didn't do the move, the possibility of them not hatching those eggs was pretty high."
The pizza pan method was a success, and using a photo of the original nest, Atkinson recreated the scattered beach debris.
"The male went back to the old nesting site... and he looks at it and he kind of cocks his head sideways, as though he's saying, 'What is going on here?' And then he slowly walked back to the new nesting site and usually plovers are picky, so I expected him to start tapping away at it or rearranging it, but it didn't. He literally just walked up, looked at it and sat right down on those eggs," she said.
It took the other plover about an hour to warm up to the new real estate. The eggs eventually hatched and the plover family has since gone south for the winter.
"Every year you try not to get attached, but you do. I try not to let the students name the chicks. Inevitably somebody always does. You're attached to them even before they hatch. You really do put your heart into this job and it really is a wonderful feeling when things work out for the better," said Atkinson.
"These plovers are gone, but they're still on my mind."
Shannon Mader, a species-at-risk coordinator with the Island Nature Trust, said while the number of piping plovers appeared lower than average for this year, it could be that some birds did not return to the Island.
"It's not an insignificant drop... with numbers that low, every individual and every nest is pretty critical to the population," said Mader.
Mader said work was undertaken this year to mark the birds so that officials can better understand where the plovers travel during the winter and whether or not they're returning to breed on the Island.
Piping plovers winter along the Atlantic coast from South Carolina to Florida, according to Ottawa's species at risk public registry. Aside from animals and gulls, one of the biggest threats to piping plovers is human use of beaches, as it can disturb their nesting sites.
— By Aly Thomson in Halifax.