The Plover Diaries
By Hannah Lethlean
The hooded plover (aka ‘hoodie’) is a local beach-nesting bird, battling to survive on the Mornington Peninsula. Their breeding season coincides with the busiest time of the year (September to April), leaving them struggling to find undisturbed nesting space on the beach during this influx of people. In order to raise a chick they must overcome enormous odds, contending with thousands of beach-goers, dogs, foxes, birds of prey, ravens, gulls, and the harsh and unpredictable weather of Victoria’s coastline.
Human-induced disturbance or not, hoodies naturally have low breeding success. After 28 days of incubation, hoodie chicks hatch and leave the nest. They have a further 35 days of foraging and growing on an open beach before they are able to fly. Once able to fly (A.K.A. a ‘fledgling’), their chance of survival soars to over 50% compared to around 3% as a flightless chick. Keeping chicks alive during that time is the ultimate challenge, and is a testing endeavour even in natural conditions.
Throwing beach-goers, dogs off lead, foxes and increased numbers of ravens into the mix is tipping the pressure too far, and Hoodies are struggling to fledge chicks. In order to sustain the population, experts say there needs to be at least 0.47 chicks fledged per nest. Last breeding season, the Mornington Peninsula produced 0.16 fledglings per active nest. This puts us way behind the benchmark, and could mean local extinction within 25 years.
But it’s not all doom and gloom!
BirdLife Australia, Parks Victoria and volunteer groups have been working towards fostering a greater coexistence between nesting hoodies and recreational beach-users. By implementing on-ground local action and publicising the threats imposed by humans, we aim to increase community responsibility for the hoodies’ plight, and therefore give them a better chance of survival. This is done by marketing strategies through articles, merchandise and stalls at local markets; applying for grants to provide protective fencing and directional signage; educational programs; research into coastal ecosystems and the threat of introduced weeds; and coordinating and training an army of citizen scientists to collect observed data from their beach monitoring.
The Tale of a Territory: Moana East, January 2016
The Moana East territory is a popular surf break near St Andrews Beach and has been the centre of some serious hoodie drama and heartbreak for quite some time. Originally occupied by female ‘KT’ and an unbanded male, one day ‘KT’ disappeared, last sighted on her territory with a nest in November 2013. We thought her dead, but to our surprise she located up the coast eight months later… with a new man! Meanwhile, ‘MU’ (banded as a chick at Fingal in February 2012) and her unbanded male partner conquered the Moana East territory in December of 2013. Since then, these new birds on the block have had numerous nesting attempts, but unfortunately no surviving chicks.
Tragedy overcame the pair last year with the loss of two chicks only days away from fledging. This was devastating for the parents, as well as the volunteers and rangers who had dedicated days of work to give these chicks a chance at flying. A necropsy conducted later on one of the chick’s bodies showed that the cause of death had been from a dog.
This season, the pair have persevered and successfully hatched four chicks. Volunteers and rangers do regular check-ups on the little fluff-balls in order to monitor their movements, as well as to educate any beach-goers about the detriment of disturbance. The first chick from their first nesting attempt was lost soon after hatching. However, their second clutch of three eggs was far more successful and all hatched. Unfortunately, just as our confidence was beginning to build, we lost two of the chicks at 17-days-old. All hope rested on the final chick, whom at 23 days was starting to look more like a gangly teenager! The awkward transition of fluff to feather was taking place, and everyone was counting down the days until first flight.
Unfortunately, January 12th marked the disappearance of the final chick from the Moana East territory. Being much older and wiser, it was hard not to have hoped that it would survive. Not knowing the cause of death is frustrating and shattering for the people who have invested so much time and effort, but conservation of threatened species is rarely dominated by heart-warming stories.
So I know I said it’s ‘not all doom and gloom’ and followed it by exemplifying a hoodie territory where, this year, all four chicks have perished….. But the success we strive for is measured in increments. Only five years ago this territory was on the verge of being abandoned by scientists. The level of human disturbance was so great that clutches rarely hatched and dog regulations were blatantly ignored by the majority. Now, through various programs there is greater awareness and appreciation of the hoodies, which means that beach regulations regarding dog control and dune invasion are better adhered to. The community is gradually taking ownership of the hoodies’ plight and is joining us in the journey from eggs to chick to fledgling. The greater the community involvement, the closer we come to understanding the fate of the chicks. Before long, we will get those chicks to 35 days so that they can fly away - and we can sleep easy knowing that they made it through.
Note: All photos were taken in accordance with disturbance-minimising protocols using a telephoto lens by a trained individual. In no circumstances were the hooded plovers or chicks deliberately disturbed in order to obtain photographs.