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Our Brave Little Birds – Hooded Plovers Moggs Creek, January 2015

After three earlier attempts at breeding this season, the two birds, which bred and raised two chicks successfully at Moggs Creek in 2014, tried once again beside the Moggs Creek estuary, with three eggs being laid in a scrape in the sand in early December.

From that time until the evening of Friday, 2 January, the two birds took it in turns to sit on the eggs and then go off duty.  On Friday evening, both birds were observed near the nest at 6.30 p.m. At the early morning visit on Saturday, 3 January, only one bird was observed, as was usual at this time of day, with the second bird always returning about 8.00 a.m. when they changed shift. This did not happen on that Saturday.

Saturday, 3 January was a day of extremely high temperature, and while a bird was observed on the nest during the heat of the day, no changing of birds was observed. Looking back now, we realise that one of the birds was killed on the Friday evening. It was an incredible feat for the other bird to stay on the eggs during that extreme heat, as most likely the eggs would have been ‘cooked’ if the bird had left the nest. Observations of the breeding in January 2014, when temperatures were extreme, showed the birds, almost continually, changing at the nest and cooling off in the water.

On the morning of Sunday, 4 January, a chick was running about outside the enclosure with an adult bird close by. What happened after that was quite astonishing. The adult went back into the enclosure – but not to the nest, and appeared to sit on a small pile of feathers. It then stood up, pecked at the feathers with its beak, lifted the small bundle and flew over the enclosure fence, placed the bundle down, and then sat on it. When the bird stood up, two little chicks were moving about. We were just so excited. The parent encouraged these two little chicks to join the other sibling, which appeared to have been hatched a few hours earlier, inside the enclosure.

We hurriedly organised a minding roster, and to our dismay, Phil Watson, who realised something was amiss, found the body of one of the birds in the creek, with its head missing. Perhaps this brave little bird had decoyed a predator (probably a fox) away from the nest, and paid the supreme sacrifice.

About 1.30 p.m., the surviving adult led its tiny chicks away from the enclosure, obviously intent on moving the family to a new destination. Did it realise the nesting area was a danger to the new chicks?

About 5.00 p.m., after a trek of between 500 and 600 m, the family arrived at the area where the same two adult birds had successfully raised two chicks in early 2014. This was the first site they had chosen in September 2014, but we are not sure what happened to the first clutch of eggs. Did the surviving bird feel safer in this area? The second clutch (between Moggs and Fairhaven) was taken by birds, and we think the third clutch (between the estuary and the present site) was washed out by torrential rain.

A visit to the new site at about 8.00 p.m. that Sunday evening, indicated that the birds intended staying in this area. Georgie Beale, from Great Ocean Road Coastal Committee (GORCC), returned from holidays on Monday, 5 January,  and some signs and shelter boxes were put in place.

Hooded Plover chicks

Hooded Plover chicks – Photograph by Georgie Beale

The odds against a single parent raising three chicks are very high. However, we have been endeavouring to help the small family as much as possible, through volunteer rosters with GORCC support. The parent has shown the chicks how to feed, after sitting on them (brooding them) for the first ten days to keep their body temperature constant. It was a struggle to continue to fit three babies underneath as the chicks grew fast. Since they reached fourteen days, the parent no longer broods them. They are really agile, and have been running all around on the beach – often down towards the water’s edge, and then just resting higher on the beach often amongst seaweed. The parent has never been too far away. They have also been observed using the shelter boxes.

If the chicks survive, we will continue to help protect the family from dogs, as this beach has no dog restrictions. We have at all times encouraged people to have their dogs on leads, and the community has been most cooperative. GORCC has provided a telescope for visitors, to share looking at the birds, and we have been able to impart the knowledge we have about the species. It has been a very positive experience all around.

We are keen for Birds Australia to offer us an induction/training course after this year’s efforts. We are learning all the time from our experiences.

Margaret MacDonald