photo note- after we convert to Substack photos will have captions- stay tuned
Back when I first began visiting the lake shore there were no bald eagles, no ospreys, no Caspian terns and “common” loons were a rarity. Today these and other once rare birds have returned to our waters largely because of human actions.
Respected scientist and spokesperson for nature Dame Jane Goodall has advice for those of us who write about the environment. Don’t overlook hope. She knows well the critical situation we face regarding biodiversity and climate change. But she also says we are under reporting the resilience of nature, the progress that has been made and the benefits that are being realized.
In that spirit the Lake Ontario Log offers an update on an endangered shorebird, the piping plover. This tiny bird that lives at the water’s edge has been on the edge of extinction for at least thirty years. Three populations of plovers cling to existence. One group lives on inland lakes and rivers, one population is coastal, and the third nests on sandy shores of the Great Lakes. The plover has been missing from our shores for many years and in 1986 the entire Great Lakes population was down to just 16 known pairs of birds.
The piping plover is a ground nester and relies on camouflage to escape predation as it tends its eggs and young chicks. Unfortunately, plovers also rely on undisturbed sandy beaches, just the sort that attract people. Pedestrians might avoid stepping on a bird or its nest, but dogs, dirt bikes and other off road vehicles are another issue – and the disturbance they now create on once empty shores has driven most plover populations over the edge.
Since about 1990 an effort at various locations to save the birds by protecting nesting areas with fencing and a determined education campaign directed at beach users has begun to turn things around and in 2016 a nesting pair returned to Lake Ontario and raised two chicks on the beach near Sandy Pond’s channel. Piping plovers have also recently appeared on the Canadian shores of the lake.
Unfortunately, things are never simple. People insist on sharing the shore on their own terms and sometimes there’s no room for other creatures. Sandy Pond is lined with summer camps and cottages. The natural channel between the open lake and the marsh and sheltered lagoon behind the barrier beach constantly fills and shifts, so for the last twenty years it has been maintained for boaters by dredging in a largely privately funded effort. The dredging activity is very disruptive to tiny ground nesting birds.
When the plovers first showed up, the Endangered Species Act was invoked to encourage them to stay. US Army Corps of Engineers has since issued permits for dredging the Sandy Pond channel only between September 1 and April 1. Later dredging is allowed only if there are no Piping Plovers present. This plan worked pretty well for a few years, but in 2021 possibly because of a late spring ice out and low lake levels, the dredging operation was delayed. But right on schedule the bitty birdies showed up to start another family.
this photo shows a sanderling similar in coloration to piping plover
The ban on dredging after April 1 did not sit well with the people who wanted access to the lake for fishing and zooming around in their jet skis and motor boats. Various news stories portrayed the situation as yet one more example of government overreach messing up people’s ability to have fun. ( And more importantly to spend money.) Sandy Pond’s resident marina was not happy either about restrictions on its customers’ use of their boats. Soon a Congress woman was petitioning the USFWS to revoke the permit restrictions.
Despite the pressure, the Feds held firm, and no dredging took place during the nesting season. And two pairs of plovers settled on the shore. One pair succeeded in raising two chicks that fledged.
Various ideas of how to co -exist with the birds at Sandy Pond have since been posted on line. One certainty, though, is on going intense pressure from real estate development. And with it comes ‘Give us money’ for a stable permanent channel. About forty years ago I visited Sandy Pond with my boat. Back then the channel was not regularly dredged, and the general level of affluence ashore was fairly modest. But here as elsewhere, bigger is better for boats, houses and tax assessments.
A permanent hardened channel would almost certainly be the end of the natural beach environment needed by the plover. And creating and maintaining one would be costly as climate change continues to intensify extreme weather events. It would divert resources away from nature based solutions that would increase shoreline resilience to benefit a greater proportion of the lake’s environment and human users at far less cost in the long run.
Hard engineering at the lake’s eastern shore has not always been successful. Tom Hart professor of environmental science at Syracuse University who has studied the lake’s eastern shore for years was quoted in a recent news story saying “if we’ve learned anything from 2019, (and its high water levels) it’s that those things that were engineered to have 30-year life spans, ended up having two-year life spans.”
The piping plover still very much resides on the razor edge of existence. A couple of bad years with high water or a chance encounter with a hungry crow, and the species may well flicker out again on our shores. But as the “scientist” in the movie Jurassic Park said life finds a way. We should not underestimate the potential of these tiny birds to defy the odds.
If we can respect their place as a part of the shoreline community of life and if we can share a small stretch of beach with them they’ll almost certainly continue to reclaim it.
For more on plovers and other lake issues you can meet with me in person at the Fair Haven Art Center’s literary event with 4 other local authors Nov 21 2 to 4pm