Above: Some of the team conducting the index count for piping plovers. – Courtesy of Intervale. | Inset: A banded piping plover with white flag. – Courtesy of Russell Wall, submittedf to Wreckhouse Weekly Inc. Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Despite the severe ecosystem disruption that happened as a result of Hurricane Fiona, the piping plover, a threatened and endangered shorebird that nests and feeds along coastal sand and gravel beaches in North America, has made it’s way back to this region.

“Results from this year’s Piping Plover index count, conducted annually in the Atlantic Provinces during the first nine days of June, showed good returns of the endangered species to beaches of southwestern Newfoundland, from Port aux Basques to Stephenville Crossing and east near Burgeo. Notably, this was the first index count conducted after Hurricane Fiona, and participants had a lot more ground to cover as a result of the dramatic changes to beach and dune habitat after the storm,” said Kathleen Blanchard, President and Founder of Intervale Associates in an article she wrote entitled ‘Piping Plovers Return, Nest on Storm-ravaged Beaches’, and contributed to Wreckhouse Press.

“For the beaches from Port aux Basques to Codroy Valley, a 14-person team led by Russell Wall recorded nine plover pairs and one single adult. They also found three nests on beaches between Grand Bay West and Cheeseman’s Park, although one of the nests was lost later in the week, possibly due to flooding. There were early reports of several nests on beaches of Bay St. George, and at least two nests at Big Barasway near Burgeo. By July 10 -one month since the index count- the team working on the Port aux Basques to Codroy Valley beaches are following 16 adult Piping Plovers, seven nests, and three chicks.”

Russell Wall, Environmental Technician with Intervale Associates, and Coordinator of their Piping Plover Project, said they’ve seen no decrease in numbers this year.

“I think we have one more pair than we did last year between Port aux Basques and Codroy Valley, so they’ve seemed to have come back as normal. Now, of course, many of the beaches have changed significantly, so their usages of beaches and where we’re seeing them are a little different than we see in past years because the habitat they were using before, in some cases completely gone. They’re wider beaches, in some cases like Second Beach. Of course, they really got hit very hard,” said Wall.

“The dune system was almost completely destroyed, but the plovers are there. They have nested on those beaches. We’ve had a few events this year where we had a storm early in the season that caused some flooding, so we lost a nest. But I mean, overall, they’re on the beaches. They’re trying to make use of the habitat and we’re seeing some success.”

In her article, Blanchard stated that the annual index count is a good example of collaboration.

“Intervale Associates covered beaches from Port aux Basques to Codroy Valley, while Qalipu First Nation, the Wildlife Division, Parks Canada, and Canadian Wildlife Service completed counts on beaches of Bay St. George, Burgeo, Cow Head, and Deadman’s Bay. Partnering organizations such as the Stewardship Association of Municipalities, the College of the North Atlantic, and Ducks Unlimited quickly responded to the call for assistance, along with three volunteers recruited by Intervale. Intervale extends a hearty thank-you to the individuals who participated in this year’s index count, and to the Town of Port aux Basques for all the work they are doing to restore and manage the beaches and trails following the dramatic changes that resulted from Fiona,” said Blanchard.

“This year, Intervale hired two students from the South Coast to work as beach guardians, interacting with beach users and helping to protect Piping Plovers from Port aux Basques to Codroy Valley. Nicholas Bragg is from Isle aux Morts and Heidi George from Burnt Islands. For the remainder of the nesting season, they and other beach guardians will continue to play a critical role in helping to protect the chicks and eggs from human disturbances so that as many chicks as possible will fledge successfully.”

After a storm like Fiona, a certain amount of fallout is to be expected.

“I think it’s mostly the habitat changes that are the biggest things that are happening here, which may also affect invertebrates on the beaches, so what the birds are eating or what the animals are eating. There’s a lot of significant changes, but I think it does seem that most of the species that utilize those regions are adaptable and can move and are willing to move with the changes,” said Wall.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it goes over the next few years, but so far the signs are promising and in some cases, it created new habitat that didn’t exist before.”

In some cases the flattening out of the sand has created more useful habitat for the piping plovers.

“We really don’t know what to expect when you get a storm of that significance, because until you get to the beach and see what’s happened, it could go either way,” said Wall. “You could get a loss of habitat or you can get an increase in habitat. In this case, I think overall, we probably had an increase in habitat, but I think another storm of that significance in any quick succession could really destroy some of the habitat that’s been created.”

Despite the significant habitat changes, the plovers showed no hesitation to return.

“They utilized it right away this year. We were concerned about whether invertebrate numbers would be down or anything due to the changes that happened but, I mean, they’ve utilized the same beach. At the start of the season, we saw three pairs on Second Beach, I think we still currently have two that are there and attempting to nest. Unfortunately, one of the changes that happened to that beach is that it pushed the sand up, and there was no immediate release for the pond behind Second Beach. So in that case, when we had the storm, that pond sort of pushed into some certain sections of the beach and caused a little bit of flooding, and it actually destroyed an area where one of the pairs was trying to nest,” explained Wall.

“So we’re still seeing some fallout from the changes that Fiona caused.”

Wall said that there are seven pairs between Port aux Basques and Codroy Valley.

“This year, we had eight at the start of the season. I think we had six last year. So we’ve seen an increase, a small increase in the numbers this year.”

Throughout their index count, Intervale saw no indication that the plovers were struggling to nest.

“You’re just dealing with the same disturbances that they deal with on a yearly basis: predators, flooding, storm events, that type of thing. So I think plovers have come right in and utilized it very quickly,” said Wall. “I know in the early season, we were seeing grass growth was starting, so grasses were starting to grow back, which would hopefully lead to creation over a few years. Whether it will return to what it was, I don’t know if that’s even possible, but the plovers right now are utilizing the new habitat and making use of it.”

Mark Lomond of Sou’West Newfoundland Delta Waterfowl said there are concerns in the aftermath of Fiona that could cause some issues in the protected zone.

“Extra garbage and debris always attracts more gulls and stuff like that, which are predators to a lot of small birds and their young. Now, there’s been a lot of groups and organizations that’s been out and cleaned up, so that’s definitely been a big help. I know school has been up, St. James High School and that.”

Fiona is not the only major event that has caused significant change.

“Certain areas do change significantly as a result of these weather events. We’ve seen that not just in Fiona, but that big rain event that we had the year before, the 400 ml of rain. Those two storms actually changed the landscape and the water systems in some areas. So some areas that were suitable before for waterfowl and stuff is not anymore, and then there’s other areas that wasn’t really appealing to them that they’re starting to hang out and they’ll feed in because it’s better,” explained Lomond.

“There’s a lot of different areas in the rivers and ponds that filled in with sediment and it’s the same thing after Fiona, just more or less along the shoreline, as opposed to that big rain event was more in the rivers and where they spill into the Barasway and the ocean.”

It’s not just waterfowl that have to adapt after weather events.

“We see that a lot with salmon rivers too. A lot of our pools that we fished in fill in during these big events, and there’s always the risk in view of spawn getting buried, so it’s not good for the salmon either,” said Lomond.

“It’s going to be struggle for, not just humans, but the animals as well. But we’ve seen that all over the planet on the news, like down in Australia and the fires, and all animals are suffering from climate change issues. Here is not going to be any different. We’re just lucky enough that we live in an area that’s less impacted by climate change than others, but we’re definitely not free from change. There’s lots of change, but not so severe as other places. Our weather is controlled by the ocean. We’re surrounded by ocean. We’ve got the Labrador current that comes down around the island and so the melting sea ice and that up there, so much of it is coming down and it actually keeps the waters around Newfoundland a little bit cooler. Our summers, in general, are still a little bit cooler, and that’s because of the Labrador current.”

By Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 24, 2023 at 06:00

This item reprinted with permission from    Wreckhouse Weekly News    Port aux Basques, Newfoundland
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