Helping our hoodies: one dog could be the difference
‘Are you aware of the birds? The birds nesting?’ I ask the couple, as they walk along the shoreline towards me with their two dogs off-lead. One dog lollops off, zigzagging its way into the sand dunes. The small hooded plover nesting boxes are lined up at the beach, past the high water mark. There are ropes to signify ‘stay away’ from this marked-out safety zone. In this space between land and ocean, small birds, camouflaged among the seaweed and beach grasses, build their tiny nests in depressions in the sand.
I feel a duty to speak, to alert these humans to the precious creatures, at risk along this coast. I wonder how the dog owners will respond. ‘The whole beach here is on-lead during nesting season,’ I say. ‘I’m just concerned about the Hooded Plovers. There are only a few hundred left in Victoria.’
‘Yeah, they’re okay, the dogs are under control,’ the man tells me, and they continue on. The off-lead beach is only a few kilometres away, yet each morning, dog owners have been here with their dogs running free.
It is dogs like this, roaming, that pose one of the biggest threats to these shore-nesting birds. A BirdLife Australia research paper on the impact of dogs on shorebirds even makes the claim that ‘dogs on beaches fit the ecological definition of invasive species.’ While I bristle at this notion, as a dog owner and dog lover myself, it seems this is science talking. And it makes me wonder: how hard is it for humans with dogs to share the environment respectfully, when the survival of a species might be at stake?
Each nesting season, the small vulnerable Hooded Plovers nest along the shoreline of beaches and inland salt lakes. Each season, volunteers map and track the plovers’ precarious lives, and each season, chicks are lost to seabirds, to horses trampling, to people stomping, to foxes, and yes, to dogs. To add to the challenge, each summer on the beach I visit, the signs put up to protect the birds are torn down: defaced, wiped out, ripped off and smashed over. Signs on the track tell of the Hooded Plovers’ plight, and at the edge of the beach during nesting season, a large sign makes it clear: ‘Dogs must be on a lead past this point.’ And yet the signs are torn down.
There are approximately 1,400 Hooded Plovers of the eastern subspecies mainland range, with around 600 in Victoria. John Murray, a volunteer with BirdLife Australia, calls himself a HoodLUM: a Hoodie Lover Ultra Militant. ‘Dogs really are one of the big issues for the birds,’ he tells me. ‘It’s the first thing we needed to educate the public about, as people just weren’t aware.’ In a good season, Murray monitored 13 nests and 33 eggs along a seven kilometre section of Bellarine coast. Nine chicks were born, and two survived to fledgling stage. However, Murray says that he recorded 51 acts of vandalism to the signs which alert beachgoers to the precarious existence of the Hooded Plover. In the latest season, 2019-2020, twelve eggs led to seven chicks and again, only two survived.
As I watch the waves on the wild ocean beach, a sea bird stands, heavy and deliberate, on the rock pool shelf. It lifts off into the wind, and wheels back over the hooded plover zone. Holding itself aloft, it’s almost stationary, a dive-bomber. I will the wind to move it on, away from the threatened birds and their tentative hold on the sand. Fly away, predator! Fly away!
Each September, BirdLife Australia takes part in Plover Appreciation Day, with the aim of making humans aware of the threat our presence poses for this ground-nesting bird species. ‘The key to coexistence between people and plovers is awareness, understanding and sharing space with them.’
To help ensure the survival of this precious species, people could consider choosing the off-lead dog beaches some mornings, or keeping their dogs on lead, just through the plover breeding season. One free-range dog might be the end of one potential free-range bird. And for that, there would only really be humans to blame.
Banner image courtesy of Elodie Camprasse.
This article was originally published in The Guardian, September 14, 2018. Republished with permission.
Anna Sublet is a freelance writer. Her essays and articles have been published in The Guardian, The Big Issue, The Age and Australian Traveller.