Highs and lows of the shorebird field season

Audrey Bonk & Chloe Brookes
6 May 2016

The NVT Shorebird Research Team recently finished a great 6 months field season working on White-fronted Plovers. With a total of 83 nests, over 1500 kilometers hiked, plus 500 hours of observations & experiments...our team put in a lot of hard work to gather some great data! Here are some highs and lows we experienced as interns on the NVT Shorebird Program:

Beautiful Scenery

One of the first things people think about when doing field work is the wonderful scenery. We experienced many beautiful sunrises, with gorgeous sand dunes, coupled with the awesome that is the Indian Ocean. Some days we saw dolphin surfing in the waves, others we saw gannets and a menagerie of wildlife. Several mornings we took pictures to send back home to family and friends much to their dismay when they were stuck in dreary weather.


Sunrises like this were a definite high of the field work


Physical Endurance

Every day wasn’t a slice of paradise though. In fact many days of fieldwork came down to physical endurance. Sure, the sunrise was beautiful in the morning, but we stayed out anywhere from four to ten hours in order to do our work thoroughly and accurately. This meant a baking sun, carrying loads of equipment, walking dozens of kilometers and painful blisters. If there was ever one thing we regretted it was being underprepared for the field. Days we forgot sunscreen were scorching. Needless to say we used lots of after sun gel. The longest hikes usually meant many blisters from sand rubbing into our shoes, and sore shoulders from carrying lots equipment. 

Field gear

A range of items needed for an average day's field work

Contact with Birds

In spite of these physical difficulties we soldiered on and were rewarded with interacting with an imperiled bird; the white-fronted plover. The days we caught and held chicks for ringing were the best. Plover chicks typically hunker down when threatened (in this case when we searched for them) and it felt like the biggest reward ever to find a tiny cotton ball of a chick hiding under a log. Holding these little guys while they peeped and squirmed around nearly broke our hearts from shear cute-ness. And to see them run awkwardly and with the utmost lack of coordinating back to their parents was equally a squealing cute moment. Another amazing moment was processing one particular nest of a very defense plover mother. She was so intense that as we placed her eggs back in the nest bowl she would bite our hands. 

plover chick

The cuteness of a white-fronted plover chick makes up for so much pain!

Nest female

Close intimate moments like this were very special.

Disappointing Human Behavior

Observing human behavior could be both positively and negatively enlightening. It was disappointing to witness not only the direct effects of human disturbance, in the form of birds being disturbed in sign-posted areas, dogs being off lead on on-lead beaches, but also the consequences of the waste people leave behind. This could not only be discouraging but also reinforced the importance of the work we were doing and highlighted the need for action in the form of public awareness and education. 

Fishing line culprit

One of several sad cases encountered on the beach this summer

Positive Public Interest

Wearing shirts with researcher plastered on the back was not only a good ego boost, but encouraged curious members of the public to enquire about our work. It was encouraging to have so many people interested in our research and wanting to know more about what’s happening on their local beaches. This also allowed us to spread the word of the plovers’ plight. If only one person we talked to remembers us and spreads the word or changes their own behavior on the beach it will have been worth talking to every one of them.


Branded clothing made a big difference - thanks Lancewood!

 Getting to Know the Birds

One of our tasks was to conduct observations on breeding pairs with active nests. We conducted three observations on each nest for two hours time. Many pairs had multiple nesting attempts and it was hard not to get attached. From the bravery of some parental birds to the skittish-ness of others, it’s clear that these birds develop their own characteristics and personalities, and we all had our favorites. Feeling that we knew the birds on a personal level helped us stay motivated, and is a technique we hope to use in making others appreciated these near-threatened birds.

shorebird 7 

Mental Endurance

Observing the birds for these long periods of time was not only rewarding, but also tested our patience. Time spent sitting still observing sometimes very subtle behavior was at times equally as tiring walking ten kilometers searching for nests. But knowing the data collected would be used for important research made it all worthwhile, even if it meant exploring many different position to avoid sore joints and the change in temperature. 

shorebird observations

Sometimes we had to sit in weird positions stalking our birds!

Fledgling Success

In the end, some of our best moments were seeing fledglings. After all the beautiful scenery, physical challenges, handling birds, watching unaware people walking over nests, talking to excited beach-goers, learning about each individual bird, and the countless hours of work, seeing chicks fly for the first time was amazing. These birds (and ourselves researching them) go through so many trials and tribulations. To be some of the lucky few people to have seen an egg laid, hatch into a fluffy chick, and grow to an adult is a wonderful thing. It showed us how precious life is and how fragile it can be, but it also showed us how resilient and strong we all were. It was a field season of many highs and lows and one to remember for a lifetime.

shorebird team

The awesome plover chicks of summer 2015/2016!