I FIRST became a plover lover – ie. interested in hooded plovers – about three years ago. The focus of my interest is a pair at Cape Paterson, near the Wonthaggi Lifesaving Club, largely because they are easy to get to, and my best days of hiking through soft sand are behind me.
This pair had a very bad time of it last year. They nested four times (maybe even five) over the summer, always with three eggs. On at least two occasions the nest was swept away by exceptionally high tides. Their last attempt was most unusual: higher up in the dune, under a straggly shrub, safe from the tides, but not alas from the foxes.
This year their nest was just at the foot of the grassed area of the dune; twice the tide came within a foot or two of it. I have been monitoring it for the past five weeks. As the birds’ self-appointed guardian, I approach people and ask them politely to leash their dogs. The usual response is, “Oh, my dog won’t go up there.” Do the birds know this? Can they tell it’s a very well-behaved dog which won’t chase them or accidentally step on the eggs? Of course, what dog doesn’t love a free run on a beach? I point out that the dog could run free all the way from here round to Second Surf Beach, and no one would worry, but some of the more recalcitrant ones seem to think it’s their dog’s beach, for it to do as it pleases. But people are getting better.
A few days ago I went on my usual evening walk to check them out. My heart sank as I saw the nest was gone, the eggs were gone, not even broken shells left.
I couldn’t see the birds anywhere. Hoodies can be hard to spot at the best of times, often camouflaged among the seaweed and other detritus on the beach.
Nests can be even harder to spot, just speckled eggs in a scrape in the sand. Birdlife Australia has special motion-activated cameras to monitor nests: there is a photo of a guy standing with his boots just inches from three eggs, with his dog next to them; he’s obviously peering at the camera, trying to work out what it is.
The next morning Steve Johnson rang me: our carefully constructed enclosure had been swept away in another exceptionally high tide. We went down to make repairs. The birds were there! And two chicks! And there may have even been a third, in hiding.
So the story has a happy ending – so far: there are some weeks to go before the chicks fledge and can fly.
Hooded plovers are an endangered species. There are probably less than 50 left on Bass Coast, and less than 500 in Australia. So, when you walk your dog on the beach, do please leash it when in their vicinity, and walk along the water’s edge.
Nests are little more that a scrape in the sand. Cape Paterson, December 2012. Photos: Steve Johnson
"Our" hoodie chick, Cape Paterson, December 2012. A rare success but there are still some weeks to go before they will be able to fly.
Note: At the time of publication, there are three hooded plover chicks on the trestle beach at Kilcunda and two chicks at Elizabeth Bay on Phillip Island.