As part of the Saskatchewan Prairie Conservation Action Plan's Native Prairie Speaker Series on Feb. 6, Nature Saskatchewan’s Rebecca Magnus presented the results from the Piping Plover international census taken in 2011, noting that the population is down to only 775 birds - half what it was in the 2006 census.
“It may sound strange that we’re presenting results from the 2011 census,” said Magnus, “but it does take time to process results, and even though we still don’t have all the international results we have our provincial numbers and Canadian numbers.”
The decline of the Piping Plover population was first noted in 1945, and it was designated as a Threatened species in 1978.
“In 1985 it was upgraded to Endangered, and then come 2002 the Species At Risk Act came into play and the Piping Plover, being endangered, fell into the Species at Risk Act.”
That same year, Nature Saskatchewan started a Piping Plover Guardian Program that was focused around Lake Diefenbaker because it was thought at the time there was a large concentration of Plovers in that area. While that program concluded five years later in 2007, Critical Habitat was designated that same year for the Piping Plover.
“Plovers On Shore”
The Piping Plover was the first species to have critical habitat designated in Saskatchewan because there was data from international censuses on which to base the designation.
“In acknowledgement of that, in 2008 we started the Plovers on Shore program, which was with landowners to help conserve the habitat for the Piping Plover.”
Plovers On Shore was created to work with landowners to raise awareness and to protect Piping Plover habitat from destruction and cultivation. Habitat conservation includes maintaining (not draining) wetlands, keeping livestock off shorelines and wetlands from mid-April through July, and not breaking the land in the immediate vicinity.
“In the beginning, we targeted critical habitat exclusively, and there were 156 quarter sections designated in Saskatchewan. We have targeted all those quarter sections in terms of land managers, and that includes private and crown land.
“Now we work with confirmed Piping Plover sightings, so a big part of what we’re still working on is reaching out to all those in the census. Just following the census in 2011, we were able to reach out to nearly 30 that season alone, and then 40 this past season (2012), so we’ve reached out to about 70 landowners and had great feedback and success.”
Timing is usually the only measure landowners need to adjust when grazing cattle, keeping them off shorelines in spring and bringing the cattle back in to take off some of that vegetation in August.
“Many of our landowners have had very few issues with just altering their time slightly and only benefitting them to keep their cattle off because a lot of the shoreline backs on to native prairie so it benefits them to have their cattle on there late summer, early fall.
“Mid April through to mid July is the critical time for it. Come the first of August they’re gone. They’re early migrators.”
Over 35 public and private landowners currently participate in POS, and together they are conserving over 91 km (57 miles) of shoreline habitat, but more habitat is always needed because nesting sites fluctuate.
“In the 2011 census, they actually dropped 16 sites from the 2006 recommendation due to zero habitat, non-existing any more.”
There are 135 priority and 192 potential Piping Plover nesting sites, and the priority sites are those with recent Plover sightings.
Despite all these measures, many of the sparsely vegetated shorelines or alkaline flats that provide suitable nesting habitat for the Piping Plover are at the mercy of fluctuating runoff and rainfall levels and either flooding or drought, as well as encroachment by human and livestock populations during critical nesting periods.
“A one-inch tall cotton ball”
Beginning in May, both parents incubate four pale, light-brown-speckled eggs in an open gravel nest for 28 days, with the chicks hatching in mid June. The young leave the nest within hours of hatching, but then the tiny chicks, about the size of a cotton ball, must fend for themselves.
“I have often told people this is my largest concern for the Piping Plover because the parents do not feed the young right from day one,” said Magnus. “The young actually have to go down to the shoreline to feed on their own, and to make it worse, the chicks do not fly for at least the first two weeks from hatching. The chicks are only about an inch tall when they hatch.”
Nesting habitats situated where cattle are turned out in spring can prove deadly to newly hatching Plovers, simply because of the deep hoof prints left by cattle in soft shorelines.
“Cattle leave ruts called pugging and hummocking. With the young being only an inch tall, if they fall into one of those ruts that is two or more inches deep … it’s done for. They can’t fly for the first couple of weeks and they are done. The parents will guide it to the shoreline, but it needs our help too, to ensure that the shoreline is there in good condition.”
If sufficient notice is available, Piping Plover nests can gradually be moved to higher ground as water levels rise, but at Lake Diefenbaker shorelines can be threatened or completely submerged by the need to manage glacial run-off.
“Corie White, through the Water Security Agency, in the past they have moved the nests as the water levels rise, and they’ve been very successful with that.”
When there is no time to move nests, more drastic measures have been taken.
“In 2002, there was a large flooding that came from the mountains and Corie and a select few actually went out and rescued a large number of eggs, and Corie took it on herself to incubate them, and she actually had quite a great success. A few dozen she was able to successfully fledge at Chaplin Lake later on in the season.
Every nesting site in important
Magnus stresses that every available nesting site is important. Out of a total of 36 basins in Saskatchewan surveyed by over 130 individuals in 2011, amounting to nearly 300 kilometres of potential shoreline habitat, 29 basins had high water levels, so they offered few to no nesting sites. Only 60 kilometres of suitable nesting habitat were available that year.
A big part of the habitat conservation work in Saskatchewan is dispelling myths in terms of species at risk and landowners’ views on what that means to them.
“In the US they can actually take away your land or tell you how to manage it. In Canada we will never do that,” said Magnus.
“We have some wonderful younger guys who really care about the land and everything that it entails and are very holistic in their management, and that’s what charges us to keep doing what we’re doing, but there’s such a large number of people, especially younger ones, that want to get bigger and better, more money, and anything they can do to get that they will, which means taking us out of the equation.
“With enough people reacting positively, I do believe that we can see success over time. It was first noticed that the population was declining in 1946, so if we’ve been declining since then but we’re still maintaining at least a breeding population here, we should be able to continue that in the future and hopefully bring the numbers back up.”
The foundation for that strategy is building relationships with landowners who are willing to designate and maintain sparsely vegetated shoreline and alkaline flats for the Piping Plover, for as long as that shoreline remains suitable to the nesting population.
“The more participants we have over the years, it will also contribute to understanding [Plover] movements. They’re going to move where the shoreline is, with the high and low water levels over the years. Because they move around so much, we need to reach out to as many as possible.
“At this point we’re still hoping that through our positive action that we’d be able to bring the numbers up. We are cautiously optimistic because the goal of the action plan is to get the Piping Plover population over 1600, over three consecutive censuses, so that would be in a 15 year period, to maintain that number.”
Adult birds recorded in Saskatchewan in 2011
“Saskatchewan supports more nesting Piping Plovers than any other jurisdiction. The biggest basins and most important to us are Lake Diefenbaker, Chaplin Lake, Big Quill, Willowbunch, Manitou and Old Wives Lake,” Magnus noted. “There were only 12 basins with 10 or more Piping Plovers in 2011, which – in a province our size – to me that’s very few basins supporting.”
Missouri Coteau region (excluding Willowbunch, Chaplin and Old Wives Lakes): 262, down from 443 in 2006
Willowbunch Lake: 50, down from 66 in 2006
*Chaplin Lake: 361, up from 253 in 2006
**Big Quill Lake: 0, down from 204 in 2006
Lake Diefenbaker: 25, down from 204 in 2006
Manitou Lake: 37, down from 57 in 2006
**Old Wives Lake: 0, down from 86 in 2006
Other basins: 40, down from 122 in 2006
*In 2011, Chaplin Lake supported 47 per cent of all birds counted in Saskatchewan.
**Big Quill and Old Wives lakes had zero shorelines in 2011 due to high water levels, with an impact on 290 birds. Lake Diefenbaker was also highly flooded that year, causing 179 birds to seek alternative nesting habitat.