Thursday, February 16, 2012

Of Peeps and Beaches

Beachwalking has its rewards. The broad, white stretches of sand in southwestern Nova Scotia seem to go on forever -- and the beach is a living thing, constantly changing its configuration. In winter, the sand moves offshore exposing fields of rounded rocks sculpted by scouring sand and seawater. In summer it drifts back in again to create smooth expanses where once the rocks showed through. Shells, bits of seaweed, the occasional lobster trap or float -- even a fish-splitting table -- might appear one day only to be gone the next. In spring, summer, and late into fall, though, there's another attraction: the peeps. Sanderlings (Calidris alba) stop in on their spring and fall migrations. They're here briefly to feed before continuing on the long journey between their wintering grounds in South America and the Caribbean and their breeding grounds in the High Arctic. They can be seen chasing the receding waves then running away from them in what looks like a highly animated game of tag.
Dunlin (Calidris alpina) have long, drooping bills that make them easy to identify even in their dull non-breeding plumage. These medium-sized sandpipers probe the sand at the water's edge; they too are migrating, but their journey is a shorter one, between the eastern seaboard of the United States and the shores of Hudson Bay. They are sometimes seen in mixed flocks with sanderlings and semi-palmated plovers, performing an aerial ballet as they swoop low over the waves. The star of the show here on these Nova Scotia beaches, though is a sparrow-sized shorebird that nests near the edge of the dunes -- the piping plover (Charadrius melodus).
These little birds forage on the beach, running along then stopping suddenly to feed in an abrupt stop-and-go pattern. They must be treated with respect and care since they're endangered here in Canada, due to destruction of habitat, changes in water levels, and harassment -- often unintentional -- by people, vehicles and dogs. To protect their fragile nesting sites, it's best to beachwalk away from the dunes, to keep dogs on a leash and keep them out of the dry sand at the upper reaches of the beach, and to confine any use of recreational vehicles to the wet, compact sand avoiding known nesting areas. Efforts to protect the piping plover in Southwestern Nova Scotia have been more successful than those in the rest of Atlantic Canada; the photos that accompany this post were taken at a respectful distance with a long lens, then cropped for detail. Being on the beach in the company of shorebirds is a delightful experience, but by showing them some consideration it's a treat that can be shared with future generations, both of people and of birds.

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