Coastal Ecology Program Series Post 4: What is Fledging?
My name is Rachel Biedak and I am one of DBR’s field technicians. I have worked on Duxbury Beach for 3 years and have gone from Shorebird Monitor in my first year to field technician in my second and third years. It’s getting late in the season now for breeding shorebirds which means fledging season is upon us. Fledging means that a young bird has developed its ‘flight feathers' and is capable of sustained flight for 50ft or more.
Though piping plover chicks are precocial (meaning they are able to move around and feed themselves) and will leave the nest bowl within hours after hatching, they have a long way to go before they can fly. It takes four to five weeks after hatching for chicks to develop their flight feathers. DBR staff will start looking for fledging behavior as the chicks enter their fourth weeks of life. This behavior can include wing stretching, hopping and flapping, and of course flight!
We consider chicks fledged on the beach when we observe them flying 50 ft or more. This process can be challenging for staff though because we have to observe flight for all the chicks in a brood, which can be as many as four, and none of them seem to want to fly at the same time or may develop at slightly different rates! All the chicks look very similar, so it can be difficult to tell which ones can fly and which ones can’t at the start of each day. To make matters more difficult, broods that are known to cross through the roadway also need to be observed flying over the dune from oceanside to bayside and/or vice versa. This type of flight is much harder for young birds and can take a few more days for the birds to conquer than a mere 50ft along a flat beach berm. DBR staff will continue to protect broods from traffic until they no longer need to use the roadway to cross from one side of the dune to the other.
This may seem like a daunting task to accomplish, and it can be frustrating at times (even for staff!) when we’re waiting for that last chick to take flight! As field technicians, we spend a lot of time with the broods throughout the season, but as they get closer to fledging age we try to spend even more time with them. Shorebird Monitors and Monitor Supervisors also spend as much time as they can observing the broods as well, so that we can confirm that the brood is fledged as quickly as possible.
Here’s an example of how DBR staff confirms fledging activity: Once all of our tasks are done for the day, we’ll head back onto the beach to spend time watching the broods. Typically, we have more than one brood approaching fledging age, so each team member will take a brood to watch. We’ll spend time observing the brood, looking at how developed their flight feathers are and noting any fledging behaviors we see and any attempts at flight. We usually see short attempts at first, only a few feet at a time. It can take a few days of watching the broods build up their strength before we see the first chicks fly 50ft or more. Then it becomes a waiting game: 1 chick will fly, then another, and another. Not all the chicks in a brood develop at the same rate. Finally, we’re down to our last chick but until we see it fly we can’t consider the brood fledged. Sometimes, this can take hours and/or days of patiently waiting and watching before we see all of the chicks from a brood fly. It’s a bittersweet moment when we do, because it means the chicks are fully grown and on their own and no longer need our help.