A Canadian in the Valley!

Andrea Gress
13 February 2017

Ninety percent of my time was spent working with white-fronted plovers during my internship with the Nature’s Valley Trust. You might think things could get monotonous after 5 months on the same project, but no day was ever the same. From the first to the last, there was always something new to experience.

We were on the beach being trained by Selena, the PhD candidate whose study we were working on. We were all intently staring at plover tracks in the sand, when suddenly Selena cried out. She made a flabbergasted “OH MY GOD”, and started rapidly passing us her field gear. We obligingly took her belongings, and suddenly she was off, bolting towards the water. To say I was puzzled would be an understatement. She stopped suddenly, maybe 30m from us, and paced around in the sand for a few moments. Then Selena frantically waved us over when she had spotted whatever it was she was looking for. Right in front of her, crouched in the sand, was a plover chick. He was the size of a fluffy golf ball, perfectly camouflaged. My heart melted when I got to cradle him in my hands. The experience was extra special because we were not expecting to find any nests so soon in the season, let alone a chick.

That was the first chick of many that I would get to hold, and the experience never got dull. I gradually got better and better at spotting the chicks in the distance, and was soon making mad dashes of my own to try and catch them so that we could put rings on their legs to track their survival. I was propelled through the following months with a series of firsts. 

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Andrea holding a White-fronted plover chick

The first nest I found on my own was a personal triumph. I was shocked and riveted, the first time a plover sat on her nest, right next to me, while I processed her eggs.
The first time I saw plovers mating- I felt like such a creep. And first time I heard a chick peeping from inside the egg was a particularly magical moment.

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A White-fronted Plover defending it's nest from the researchers.

Then came an ominous first…
I was heading out to a nest we had found earlier that day to set up three signs around it. The signs were an attempt to limit human impact, they informed beach goers that birds were nesting in the area. I had hammered one sign into the sand and was just about to place the second, when I heard a kerfuffle. I looked up to see momma plover trying to draw an oystercatcher away from her nest. I was fascinated and horrified.
Despite her best efforts the oystercatcher found the nest, and scooped up the single egg in his bill. At that point I must have cried out in terror, and startled the birds. The oystercatcher dropped the egg in the sand and they both rushed away. When I investigated, I found that the egg had spit open on impact. For the next hour I watched the plovers from afar, while practicing my best David Attenborough impression. Maybe it was just my imagination, but the pair looked utterly dejected. After 20 minutes or so, they scooped up the egg shells and carried them away, a common practice of many birds. Despite the sad nature of a nest failing, I couldn’t help but be thrilled at witnessing such a rare event.

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A well camouflaged White-fronted Plover chick.

Nature’s Valley Trust has hosted many interns and volunteers over the years. Some stay for only a month or two. I can honestly say, that is not enough time. In five months, even when I wasn’t having a ‘first’, there was always something to marvel at. There might be a gull that needs rescuing, or a pod of boastful dolphins playing in the surf. Simply starting the day with a glowing sunrise on an empty beach was enough to make me appreciate the opportunity I had to see nature at its finest, and to learn from dedicated scientists about the importance of conservation. I would like to thank the whole team at NVT, especially Mark and Selena for their mentorship.

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