Today I bit my partner’s head off. I knew I was doing it. For the split second beforehand there was a choice: show restraint, suck up a small irritation and move on—or react. In that nanosecond I knew I was choosing the lesser option. The hurtful one. But I proceeded anyway. Then I was on a roll. I flung an object then flung a random array of other trifling gripes her way to fuel the fire. To her credit she didn’t respond. We were about to head to the movies to see our first film since lockdown. We drove in silence.
Without consultation I switched to a Spotify playlist and turned up the volume. About three songs in the tears began to stream.
‘What’s wrong? Do you want me to drive?’ My partner put her hand on my knee.
‘It’s not fair,’ I blurted, breathing hard to stem the flow. ‘What chance do they have? Even without the bloody foxes and gulls and kestrels and cats?’
‘I know. They don’t stand a chance. Pull over, I’ll drive.’
‘Those poor little chicks. I keep seeing them. When I look at them through the lens I’m transported into their world. It’s like a movie in my head. Their tiny little fluffball bodies. Running around like clockwork toys.’
‘I know. Are you sure you don’t want me to drive?’ She handed me a tissue.
‘I can’t believe that yesterday I watched them snuggle under their mother’s wings and now they’re dead. That Hoodie pair have lost four now, and goodness knows how many attempts we don’t know about.’ I took a shuddering breath and felt the release. ‘It’s okay. I can drive. I’m sorry I was so horrible to you.’
I have been monitoring endangered hooded plovers along the coastline from Ocean Grove to Point Lonsdale for most of the year. The hours I have spent observing them behind my telephoto lens have been some of the most precious moments in my life in recent years. I have watched them flock during the winter months, forage, preen, roost, shelter behind clumps of seaweed in the wind and rain. I’ve been privileged to observe their courting displays and, on several occasions, to see them copulate. I’ve watched them defend, put on broken wing displays to distract potential threats, to rise in a tangle of alarm at the approach of an off-lead dog, take flight in fright as an overhead paraglider swoops over. I’ve watched them incubate eggs, the other bird vigilantly guarding his partner and prospective offspring.
And recently I have had the delight of watching brand new chicks motor across the sand, their tiny cottonwool ball bodies on adult sized legs and feet, the parent birds watching closely and warding off gulls and kestrels and magpies.
Classified as Vulnerable in Victoria, the hooded plover’s lot is not an easy one. So far this season the six pairs of birds that inhabit the stretch of coast from the Ocean Grove Spit around to Point Lonsdale have had nest failure after nest failure. Variously due to eggs or chicks being predated by foxes, magpies, ravens, nankeen kestrels—or nests being inundated by high tides. Disturbances by off-lead dogs, however, continue to be one of the greatest threats.
Sometimes it’s obvious to see what has happened by doing some detective work and examining nearby footprints and tracks. But many times, we never know. All I know is that it is heart wrenching. And it is enough to prompt some volunteers who have been helping to protect the birds to quit. The birds, though, will persevere and have multiple attempts at breeding during a season.
Recently, as volunteer chick guardians/wardens for BirdLife Australia, my partner and I have been out on the beach taking our turn with a small band of dedicated volunteers whose job it is to protect four small miracles—two chicks that hatched on the Ocean Grove Spit and two near the Point Lonsdale Lighthouse. Both popular holiday destinations and high traffic areas for the human and canine beach population. As well as shepherding beach walkers with or without dogs, and surfers, away from the zones in which the chicks need to feed and allowing them access to the water’s edge where they find their richest food sources, we find ourselves engaged in interactions with the mostly positive and compliant public.
People are often unaware of the birds’ vulnerabilities and often unaware of the birds themselves. Many are under the false impression that the plovers we are protecting are the masked lapwings (spur-winged plovers) that take up ferocious residence on people’s front gardens and nature strips. Hoodies, however, couldn’t be more different. Their chicks survive by staying still and hiding, relying on their mottled feather patterns to act as camouflage. The parent birds try to lead the threats away. The huge amount of human and canine foot traffic can mean the chicks starve because they spend crucial foraging time hiding. Dogs off lead can also mean that parent birds are forced to flee, leaving their chicks vulnerable to other avian predators. Or of course, the dogs may catch the chicks or crush them under foot.
Most people are appreciative of the information we provide them about the Hoodies. They walk away thanking us, keen for updates on the chicks. Unlike the woman I was trying to reason with the day the chicks hatched on the Spit. She strode past me with her dog off-lead— even though dogs are banned on this section of beach during the day in Hoodie breeding season. I ran after her trying to redirect her to the water’s edge, away from the chicks. ‘Oh, I know all about those birds. I walk here every day as I have done for the last thirty years. I’m right, thanks.’ This over her shoulder at me, her face in a scowl.
These chicks lived for two days, after which they disappeared. We don’t know what caused their demise. A Hoodie chick has a survival rate of just over two percent. Once it fledges, in around 35 days, its chances of survival jump markedly with the ability to fly away from threats.
The movie, The Dry, based on a book we had both read and enjoyed, proved captivating, and although it tackled some difficult truths of its own, proved a much-appreciated escape.
Tomorrow we will don our volunteer vests and just keep on with it.