On Tuesday, December 8, I spent the day with the community volunteers and local staff of Holcim (formerly Readymix) at the BirdLife Australia Threatened Bird Network workshop at Inverloch where Renee Mead from the Beach-nesting Birds Program was a guest speaker.
What a place Inverloch is!
Four beach nesting birds, three of them vulnerable, nest at Point Norman, right in town.
When the solitary, well out of its natural range Beach Stone Curlew was here last year it was a mecca for bird watchers, some spotted were from as far away as Sweden.
Of course, we have all heard of the Hooded Plover (eastern) which, this year, also nests at Screw Creek.
The adult is about 20cm long and weighs about 100g. How crazy is its reproductive strategy? For every 100 eggs laid only two make it through the start of adulthood. And this is under normal circumstances! What parent could contemplate a 98 per cent loss?
No wonder in Victoria their population is declining. There are now only 550 to 600 birds left.
Last year, following a rigorous scientific assessment of the species’ threat status, the Hooded Plover was determined as eligible for listing as threatened under the Vulnerable category of the Federal EPBC Act. This joins the other two vulnerable species that nest at Point Norman namely the Pied Oystercatcher and Little Tern.
And yet life on a beach makes some sense; the tide, twice daily delivers a fresh meal and on the beach you can see the predators coming.
That explains why they nest out in the open.
If they make it through the 28 days of egg incubation (23 per cent chance) and the 35 days from hatching to flying (20 per cent chance), they can expect a long life in the sun. Who would expect such a small bird living in such a vulnerable open location to live to the ripe old age of up to 16 years?
Recognition of the beach nesters is a recent phenomenon. No wonder we didn’t hear about them growing up. The first pilot study of them was only in 2006.
Since then Birds Australia has bought science and martialled the army of eager citizen volunteers to develop our understanding.
This is evidence-based science. The evidence is gathered directly. Advances in motion sensor cameras have revealed the predators, the vulnerabilities, the habits and the life stages.
The cameras have shown that if the king tides, storms and sand don’t wash, blow or bury the nest and the relentless sun of summer doesn’t cook the eggs or dehydrate the tiny little chicks and the hawks, gulls, maggies, crows and not to forget the foxes don’t eat them, then they may survive.
No wonder 98 out of 100 die.
Except everyone loves the beach don’t they? So then there is us. I swear you will never see those beautifully, exquisitely fit for purpose camouflaged eggs and chicks. But your dog very well may.
People and dogs compound survival pressure on eggs and chicks. The good news in Victoria is at least we don’t allow cars to drive on the beach. The other good news is the volunteers. It is the volunteers who put up the signs and fences. It is the volunteers who monitor the nests and shift the fences.
They shift the fences because on hatching the chicks are highly mobile and head for the waterline where the food is.
Of course the fences can’t survive the waves of the incoming tide so are never located there.
The single line fences are generally located around the nest areas. They provide space enough when people and their dogs remain outside the roped area so that adult plovers are not continually flushed from their nest. The fences, like the signs, are designed as indicators for the beach visitors. In the volatile beach environment, providing protection for a highly mobile bird species with a more robust fence is quiet simply impractical.
Once hatched the tiny chicks feed themselves, always on the beach. They are so small they can easily hide in a heal print. They begin a 35 day marathon until they can fly – their camouflage and expert hiding skills are their only defence. They define the term vulnerable. Only one out of five will survive to fly.
They need all the help that they can get. What can we do? We can’t do anything about the weather and tides although school kids make shelters that are placed by volunteers.
The beach provides such rich pickings that increasingly the smart birds – ravens and magpies have taken to feeding there including on chicks and eggs, and control of town foxes are rightfully constrained to prevent poisoning of pets. Of the things we can control, it is ourselves and our dogs.
Our own dog is a beautiful border collie. At two and half she lives for pats. Not a malicious bone in her body.
But a chick; an egg are but collateral damage to a bounding leaping dog. Their loss would go unnoticed by us or them.
I couldn’t tell you if we have killed any.
Knowing what I now know and which I am attempting to share with you my fellow dog owners is that Point Norman and Screw Creek will be off the dog walking map.
It’s just too hard to enjoy yourself while looking for a chick that is so small it can hide in a heal print. Simply not worth it.
Simply put, dogs and plovers don’t and can’t mix. Dogs win. Plovers lose. That simple! It is an unfortunate fact, dog walkers, that there is an unequivocal difference between what you may prefer to be reality and what is factual reality.
For the declining population of Hooded Plover and the three other beach nesting birds, please take your dog anywhere else but Point Norman, Screw Creek and well away from fenced off areas.
Is your dog’s recreation more important than the extinction of a species? Really, there is no argument. Dogs can run on a park or an oval on many other sections of beach. The birds simply have no options.
This is not just the bleating of another superannuated beach lover with nothing better to do.
Threatened species recovery is serious business, and serious for big business.
The staff from the Leongatha Quarry of Holcim (Readymix) were at the workshop in force. Holcim is a major sponsor of the BirdLife Australia Threatened Bird Network.
The beach-nesting birds are an asset for the town of Inverloch. Point Norman is unique in Victoria.
I would be more than glad to have you join us to see what all the fuss is about. We have high powered specialist tripod mounted bird spotting scopes which really bring the beauty of that distance spec to life.
Ed Thexton, Inverloch.