Looking After the Locals

This is a guest post by Sonia Sanchez Gomez.

December 10th, Saturday, 7.30AM. ‘Is that my alarm going off? Oh! Yes it is… Why? Ok! Get up, Sonia!’ And I did it, I got up. This probably impresses only people that know me well. They are aware that I am not a morning person at all. It can take me literally 42 minutes to completely open my eyes. Ok, I have no idea how long it actually takes me, I have never timed myself, but it would be too embarrassing if it took longer. So, why did I get up so early that Saturday? The answer is hooded plovers – also known as hoodies. I forgot about my chronic morning sleepiness, got up and went to a training workshop on monitoring the nesting success of these birds.

Adult brooding (keeping warm) a five-day-old chick. Image: Sonia Sanchez Gomez

Adult brooding (keeping warm) a five-day-old chick. Image: Sonia Sanchez Gomez

Phillip Island Nature Parks and BirdLife Australia run this workshop to recruit and train Phillip Island residents, like myself, to join the ‘Hooded Plover Watch’, a group of volunteers and rangers who monitor the hoodie nests at the island beaches. Since 2006, BirdLife Australia has been coordinating their Beach-nesting Birds project, which involves working with coastal communities and volunteers across Australia to raise awareness about this group of birds, and to help monitor and improve their breeding success. Currently, this is the biggest citizen science project in the world. And there were not only local residents in the workshop room that Saturday - there were people that had driven from Melbourne to attend the workshop and learn about the hoodies. It was then that I realised that there was something fascinating about these birds.

Cordoned-off areas give birds space to nest on busy beaches. Shelters (like the one shown here) provide more protection to chicks if they need it. In this photo, there are two adults and one chick. Can you spot them? Image: Sonia Sanchez Gomez

Cordoned-off areas give birds space to nest on busy beaches. Shelters (like the one shown here) provide more protection to chicks if they need it. In this photo, there are two adults and one chick. Can you spot them? Image: Sonia Sanchez Gomez

Signs on the beach indicate to the public that they should stay on the water's edge if there are hoodies nesting nearby. Image: Sonia Sanchez Gomez

Signs on the beach indicate to the public that they should stay on the water's edge if there are hoodies nesting nearby. Image: Sonia Sanchez Gomez

Hoodies are tiny, endangered shorebirds that nest on the beach during spring and summer. They are the most threatened of the five Australian beach-nesting birds – pied and sooty oystercatcher, red-capped plover, beach stone-curlew and hooded plover. Hoodies lay their eggs in a small scrape in the sand above the high tide mark. They usually prefer open ocean beaches, but in Western Australia they also nest near inland salty lakes.

Beach. Summer. Heat. Imagine the level of disturbance and stress these birds go through. The first time I heard about the hoodie’s life, it blew my mind. In Spain, where I am from, if you get up at 7.30AM on a Saturday in summer it’s because either you have to go to work or you want to get a spot at the beach. Beaches are packed. Sometimes you can see more towel surface than sand. And the Mediterranean does not have big tide changes. So when I moved to Australia, beach-nesting birds were something totally new to me.

This four-day-old chick is looking for refuge close to the dunes at high tide. Chicks fledge at at 35 days old. Image: Sonia Sanchez Gomez

This four-day-old chick is looking for refuge close to the dunes at high tide. Chicks fledge at at 35 days old. Image: Sonia Sanchez Gomez

When tide is low, adults and chicks (five days old in this photo) often forage on the rocky platform that becomes exposed. Parents never feed their chicks but have a full-time job showing them where to go and keeping them warm and safe. Image: Sonia Sanchez Gomez

When tide is low, adults and chicks (five days old in this photo) often forage on the rocky platform that becomes exposed. Parents never feed their chicks but have a full-time job showing them where to go and keeping them warm and safe. Image: Sonia Sanchez Gomez

I think the magic of hoodies relies on the fact that you find them at your local beach, when you go for a swim, for a walk, for a run. They are there, running over the sand and you do not need expensive gear or expert knowledge to observe them and learn about their behaviour. And they will captivate you. I was captivated, and I am not a birder. For the last month, I've found myself looking at these tiny birds and chicks for hours at my local beach. I've talked to a lot of people about why it is important to protect them, why walkers must keep their dogs on leashes, and how humans can help. I've been enjoying every minute spent observing five chicks growing, and have been trying my best to help them become full adults. And that is what the Beach-nesting Birds project aims for. It gives local communities a way to protect their environment, when most of them do care but don’t know what to do. It gets residents engaged and connected with nature, and at the same time these residents educate other beach users. Then we, the local volunteers, enter the data about our sightings in BirdLife Australia’s beach-nesting database, which plays a huge role in the conservation of hoodies.

Tomorrow is Tuesday. I will get up at 6AM this time to go and check the two hoodie families at my local beach. Tomorrow, again, I won’t care about my chronic morning sleepiness because I will start the day with one of the most rewarding feelings I have ever experienced.

If you want to become a volunteer, please contact BirdLife Australia. They will happily provide you with the necessary training to monitor hoodies in a safe way for you and the birds.


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Sonia Sanchez Gomez

Sonia is a PhD student at Monash University working on foraging behaviour and ecology of little penguins. Originally from Barcelona, she grew up spending her summers swimming in the Mediterranean and looking for crabs on the rocks with her dad.

You can find her on twitter at @SonSanchez9

 

 

 

 

Banner image courtesy of Sonia Sanchez Gomez: Adults are usually attentive to potential threats. Sometimes they pretend to be incubating eggs to keep predators away from the actual nest.