Coastal Ecology Program Series Post 3: Why did the Plover Cross the Road?
To quickly introduce myself, I am Joshua Baker, one of the Supervisors for this year's season. Last year, I also worked as a Supervisor on the beach and I’m looking forward to another good year with you all! Now that you know my name, I’d like to quickly discuss brood crossings.
Jumping right in, a key event that takes place every year is our aforementioned brood crossings. Often I find that there is a lot of confusion on why they happen, how they happen, and what exactly occurs during one, so I wanted to write to you all and go over the basics. It’s my hope that by the end of this post we have learned something new or perhaps even figured out new ways to aid in any future crossings you may find yourself in.
So why did the plover cross the road? I think this is a good place to start, because when you think about it -- they have wings, right? Unfortunately, as many wings as the adults may have (two, usually), the chicks are unable to use theirs to fly until they are fully grown and so find themselves stumbling through the road with their parents chaperoning the adventure. The goal of this ordeal is for the parents to get their chicks to shelter or food sources, which coincidentally are on opposite sides of the road.
What I mean by this is that during the low tide, you’ll find our plover broods trying to cross the road to get their chicks to the invertebrates that are uncovered by the sinking water line on the bayside… and during the high tide, they reverse this journey to get back to the shelter provided by the oceanside. To put it simply, if there is a tide change (high or low) there is a higher chance that a brood will feel the need to cross the road. Of course, sometimes a brood will cross regardless of tide!
Well, that’s the bird’s eye view at least, but what about us? You may find yourself waiting for the brood to cross and wondering to yourself how this entire event progresses, when did it start, and when will it end! Lucky for us crossings can actually be really quick events where often the speed of the crossing depends on how stressed the birds are and how much space they were given to cross (because trying to get your children across a mess of metal vehicles can be quite daunting for a tennis-ball-sized bird). What this means is that as soon as DBR beach staff suspect the crossing is about to occur by following known behavioral clues from the brood, we stop traffic. Where that first car stops and how still they remain during the crossing can actually help reduce the length of the crossing immensely. So, if you find yourself first in line, now you know what you can do!
After that, our employees maintain a constant watch of the chicks, counting as they cross the road and once all the chicks are a safe distance from the road, so that we know they won’t dart back in, we can open that road right back up! This is challenging sometimes because the chicks can be hidden from view in the vegetation on either side of the road. That’s the simple version of it; we suspect a crossing and close the road, we give them space and as little stress as possible, we count them as they appear in a safe location away from the road, we confirm a safe crossing and open up the road.
Now sometimes the crossings go on a little longer than anyone would appreciate, but thankfully through our permits DBR has received special permissions to help alleviate crossings that are taking longer than forty-five minutes. Crossings this long are usually the result of a difficult chick, added stress on the brood, or cars and people moving a little too close. If necessary, after passing the half hour marker DBR staff will conduct a thorough sweep of the area for any missing chicks, which can take up to 15 minutes (sometimes longer depending on conditions and number of chicks). Right around that forty-five-minute marker beach staff will start escorting vehicles through the area. Patience during an escort is paramount, as we can only move five cars in one direction at a time (prioritizing traffic leaving the beach), but we will get to you!
Thankfully, that's the worst case scenario and the majority of the crossings are as simple as I mentioned earlier. Recapping, our broods cross to access food, shelter and other necessities and our employees close the roads and open the roads depending on the brood’s activity and safety, while other participants help by remaining still, giving space, and applying patience to the situation.
Personally, I want to thank everyone who has helped in a crossing this way, as your contribution is not only recognized but much appreciated by everyone, and I really am looking forward to some more positive interactions with you all this season.