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Adverse weather and desertion

posted May 30, 2012, 11:58 PM by Clemens Kuepper   [ updated May 31, 2012, 12:00 AM ]

Last week I got excited about the progress of the Ceuta Snowy Plovers during an otherwise dreadful breeding season. We had found many new nests and even better, many Snowy Plovers did the sensible thing during a drought and decided to build their nest close to the retreating water to give their chicks the best possible conditions once they would hatch. However, also Snowy Plovers can't foresee the future and now a few days later the decision to nest in the lagoon looks like a bad one.

What happened? The weather changed. The first hurricane of the season hit the Mexican Pacific coast a few hundred kilometers South of us and led to a few rain showers but more importantly it also changed the amplitude of the tides. This resulted in more water entering the Bahía. This is great when chicks are around because the water brings the food right to them. But it is fatal for nests, especially those close to the shore because eggs can't move and the parents can't protect them from water. As a consequence the situation has become critical for most lagoon breeders. The chicks of one nest managed to hatch before the water reached their nest. These should be the winners of the rising tide. And three more nests are close to hatching but they will race against the time and the chicks need to hatch before the water reaches the nests. All the rest of the lagoon nests looks certain to be flooded because over the next days the tide is expected to increase in strength and is expected to raise by more than half a meter. The water started already to filter through from the ground in the main nesting area of the lagoon and therefore our hopes for these nests are low.

The bad luck for the lagoon breeders could mean that the conservative salt flat breeders got their decision spot on although it looked pretty bad to me a week ago. Currently there are four families with small chicks in this area. However, at the moment the water has not yet reached the salt flats. These families are dependent on this water because the chicks can't cross the mangroves to get to the lagoon and without the water they will start to death.

It is hard for us to plan things and even worse for the Snowy Plovers.
The next five days of high tide will be critical for the Ceuta plovers. Flooding will definitely hit a large number nests this season. But the worst case scenario would be if the water stops rising further once it flooded the nests at the lagoon and does not enter the salt flats. This could forfeit the entire breeding success of the Ceuta population this year. The situation  again cries out for our conservation and restauration advice to be finally implemented. We need to do something about the water levels and restore the old dyke and channel system to make conditions more predictable and plannable for the ground nesting birds. But we still have to strike an agreement with the land- and concession owners. Let's hope this can be done soon and the Snowy Plovers can endure a bit longer.

There are once again so many twists in the story you couldn't make all this up. This is what makes field work so exciting but ultimately unpredictable. I wonder whether some of these Hollywood authors get their inspiration from studying nature. If you ever run out of ideas just come and watch plovers for a few months with us! They will entertain you and you can be certain to get enough material for several blockbusters.

On a different note, I had to 'desert' the project team last week for family reasons. Much earlier than I had planned but  I had been close to cancel my entire field season 5 weeks ago because of severe health problems of my mother. My family made it possible to leave for five weeks but now it is time to do my share. Medardo and Wendy keep things running smoothly at Bahía de Ceuta, they are the real fighters of the cause. Alejandro will return to support them soon.

Breeding North

posted May 19, 2012, 5:00 PM by Clemens Kuepper   [ updated May 30, 2012, 11:10 PM ]

The Ceuta Snowy Plovers are back strongly. Actually they were never really gone. Rather they decided to delay their breeding start and have just begun to nest madly because the season has already advanced. Over the last 24 hours we found 11 new nests which means our total nest count for this year is already 17. This is about 70% short of our usual figures around this time. But it looks a lot better than we thought about a week ago. What happened?

The Snowy Plovers moved North. Some are still nesting at the abandoned salt works where all the water is gone. These are the conservatives. They just seem to like the salt works and can’t leave it even if conditions there are catastrophic. About a third of them decided to nest around a tiny puddle of water. We called it Arroyo de Esperanza (Pond of Hope). It dried out on Friday.

I’m afraid all these families will have a hard time. There is no accessible water because between them and the water front is a 500 m stretch of thick mangrove forest. And Snowy Plover families usually don’t pass through mangroves. They could also make it to the beach but again there is mangrove forest between the nests and the beach. In a few weeks we will see what trick they will pull off again.

The other half, the adventurous plovers, decided to leave the salt flats this year and nest around a massive lagoon about 500 m North. This lagoon is slowly drying out and the plovers are quick to put their nests into the dry areas. We found nine nests there alone and haven’t searched the area properly yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if we would find 20 more nests in the lagoon. They are currently nesting in high densities and there are a lot of plovers around. The lagoon breeders look like the winners at the moment. Once the chicks hatch in three weeks the families should be able to find water even if it means that they have to walk a few kilometers because the water will retreat further. At least if there are no drastic changes with tide or weather. But they don’t have a mangrove obstacle to cross.

The problem with the lagoon breeders is that their nests are vulnerable to flooding. Fortunately the monthly high tide has just passed and should only come back once their chicks have hatched in 25 days.  Nevertheless, all we know is that  conditions are volatile, so keep your fingers crossed.

Another promising observation of today was that many of the lagoon breeders seem to be Ceuta chicks that hatched here last year. Of the nine nests at least six have one parent who hatched in the salt flats last year. So the population has not disappeared. We will see whether it pays off to be conservative or adventurous as a plover. I would put my money on the adventurous plovers. But then again, I don’t have any money and the plovers continue to surprise me every year…

Now we have some catching up to do. Nests everywhere want to be marked and the parents are waiting for us to take pictures of them and give them new color bands. Lots of work to do over the next few days.  Good that more help will arrive in a few hours.

Migration to Nayarit

posted May 8, 2012, 6:35 PM by Clemens Kuepper

Last week we took a time out from our Ceuta misery this year and migrated to Marismas Nacionales, Nayarit, to hold a compact workshop about how to monitor Snowy Plovers during the breeding season. We had initially invited people to come to visit us at Bahía de Ceuta but the lack of breeding this year made it necessary to come up with a Plan B in a very short time and so we decided to move. Of course, this was a logistic nightmare but it worked out fantastically and a big  'Thank You' goes to the people of Nayarit, namely the local Pronatura team and Carlos Villar and his team. Both groups made it possible to conduct the workshop at their Snowy Plover breeding sites and helped us to make it actually happen against all the odds.

I was very impressed what I saw and experienced in Nayarit. Twelve participants joined us for the workshop and turned into plover enthusiasts in the end. They came from Chihuahu, Baja California, Mexico DF and a big fraction from Nayarit. During the first two days we focussed on methods how to find nests and the next days how to trap adults and monitor the nests. 
All participants were very enthusiastic and quick learners. They absorbed the methods we introduced to them. Many had already some experience working with shorebirds or even plovers and therefore our aims were rather to get them working more efficient and standardize data collection in the major plovers research and conservation groups of Mexico. It worked pretty well - we quickly found a number of nests with surprisingly little effort. In total we registered 13 new nests and captured 17 adult plovers and a chick around the La Garza lagoon system adding to the 25 nests that already had been monitored by the local Pronatura team before.

Regarding the situation in Nayarit I have a feeling that we barely scratched the surface of the population. There is a lot more to come. This was the second thing why I got excited about this place. La Garza looks like another stronghold of Western Snowy Plovers. It is hard to admit but it might rival or even surpass Ceuta (certainly this year it will be true!) From a first glance plovers seem to have perfect conditions there. There is always accessible water and there are many elevated plateaus where plovers should be able to put their nests already in March. Many breeding sites are remote and seem to be undisturbed by humans. In contrast to Ceuta the pressure on the population appears to be a lot less. One backdrop is that
the area is huge and we found the plovers nesting in a low density so a lot more effort will be required to monitor the population to the degree that we can do it in Ceuta. I was a bit disappointed because with these conditions I would have expected that we would see a lot of more Snowy Plovers. We didn't run a monitoring programme and it is hard to estimate the real size without having seen all suitable places -  we only visited a few hot spots of breeding activity. Nevertheless, this year with the water shortage problems in other areas in Mexico I think there will be far more than 100 pairs breeding at La Garza.

I had hoped to spot also a few familiar plovers from Ceuta but we didn't. But during our last workshop day back in Ceuta we saw a male with a band combination and bands that we did not use. We strongly suspect that the male was marked in Nayarit last year or in 2010 and will confirm this over the next days/weeks.

There are many questions that remain to me from this visit. First of all I asked myself, why we did not see more plovers there. It really looked like plovers paradise. I wonder whether maybe the local population of Gull Billed Terns is impacting the plover breeding negatively. Gull Billed Terns often eat eggs or chicks but egg predation did not seem to be an issue and I would be surprised if they could eat up all the chicks. Alternatively, it could be also that local conditions vary strongly, the tides seem to affect the breeding areas even stronger than in Ceuta and a substantial number of plover nests might get flooded over the season. But again there is plenty of elevated nesting space, so the plovers should be able to avoid this. The second question is why we did not see any plover families yet. We only banded a single chick on Sunday our last day in Nayarit and did not see a single family. Do the families move to other spots that we did not visit? Or did the Snowy Plovers start breeding there only now? But why would they delay breeding if nesting conditions are apparently so good? There is clearly more work to be done in the future and I hope that the two local Snowy Plover teams can shed some light on this over the next few years.


At the last day we also went to Ceuta to teach people how to follow banded indivduals. We moved to Ceuta because our population is marked a lot better. In Ceuta we also found two fresh nests, one of them north of the salt flats in the Bahía where we suspect that the plovers will eventually breed this year.

The whole workshop was very productive. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot. It fed primarily of the enthusiasm of the particpants and as so often was run on a shoestring budget. Everybody helped depending on his/her circumstances and put in a few more pesos each so it could happen against the odds. I hope that we can stay in contact and all teams can establish successful long term plover monitoring projects now themselves. Maybe we can even come up with a follow up in a year or two for the more challenging work on following Snowy Plover families. I'm certainly up for it!

Drought

posted Apr 29, 2012, 6:41 AM by Clemens Kuepper   [ updated May 8, 2012, 5:11 PM ]

It doesn't look good for the Ceuta Snowy Plovers this year. Usually we struggle with too much water in April/May and the Snowy Plovers can't find dry areas for nesting. This is largely because agriculture in Sinaloa is very intense and a lot of irrigation water flows over from the irrigation channels and ends up in the Bahía de Ceuta. There it becomes brackish water when it mixes with the incoming sea water which enters the Bahía about 35 km of the Ceuta salt flats through a small connection to the Gulf of California. Irrigation stops in the middle of May and then the water levels go down and the salt flats dry out. The second source of water is rain water but the rain season will only start in late June. Before there are months without percipitation  and this is when the plovers gather in the flats and breed and we enjoy our fieldwork.

This year this situation is different. The mountain areas of Northwest Mexico have been hit by a major drought. We have not seen such a drought since we started working with Snowy Plovers at Bahía de Ceuta in 2006. As a consequence water levels in the mountain reservoirs are low and irrigation has been strictly restricted. The situation is so severe that the farmers did not get any water allocation for the latest crop. The drought and the water restriction have a large impact on shorebirds and terns.
The salt flats of the breeding site are absolutely dry now. Usually this happens only in June but apparently there has be no water since March this year. We got first reports about the unusual situation at the end of last week and yesterday during our first visit this was confirmed. Large areas of the salt flats are deserted from plovers and terns. In the end we found one spot in the Northwest of the salt flats were a few plovers were concentrated close to a small pond that will probably dry out over the next two weeks. We barely counted 45 plovers  and there were little signs that the plovers would consider breeding soon. Most of them seemed to be busy feeding. There were also hardly any Least Tern around. To our surprise we found after further searching a single fresh nest with one egg. At least one pair has not given up hope entirely then. We hope the plover couple made the right decision although the signs are not good. The spring high tide seems to be not strong enough to push enough water into the Bahía that it can reach the salt flats anytime soon.

The new and very unusual situation means that we had to make some quick adaptations. First we had to cut the workshop short  to only one week. We will hold it about 200 km South to the National Park Marismas Nacionales where breeding activity is reported to be higher and even a few of our Ceuta plovers have been sighted. Second, we will change our operations during the field season this year. We will keep a close eye on the situation in Ceuta and will especially check the area of the Bahía further north of the salt flats. This area usually is covered completely with water but should dry out within the next few weeks and we hope that the plovers will nest there. And then we will focus on acquiring support and funds for the necessary restoration work. As we experienced again water regulation is crucial for the plovers and terns and we need to take urgent steps to fix this problem as soon as possible.

Field season starting next week

posted Apr 18, 2012, 2:58 AM by Clemens Kuepper   [ updated Apr 18, 2012, 3:07 AM ]

Right. Another year and we are getting ready for the work at Bahía de Ceuta again. Preparation for field work are in full flow. We are trying to get all the pieces together: new equipment and replacement parts for old equipment, flight ticket and transport to the field site, accommodation, coordinate people. Not my favourite tasks. But then I will fly over to Mexico and start the work hopefully at the end of next week. Later in the season Medardo and Alejandro will come and join me and take over. As usual the weeks before the start are quite hectic which will make the first days in the field all the more enjoyable. Medardo is right now in Sinaloa and will visit the site for a first impression. I expect breeding to start slowly now, it all depends how fast the water has retreated already.

Our plans this year are well, quite ambitious. Beside the usual tasks of trying to follow and record every breeding event, band every newly hatched chick and monitor the survival of nests and chicks, we'll have a few extra jobs and projects. From 2 May until 12 May we will hold a workshop for Mexican biologists who want to study Snowy Plovers in the field. Lydia took over most of the organization and she did a great job. We are very excited to pass on our experience and help getting more people working on this fascinating creatures. We still know very little about dynamics of Snowy Plover populations in Mexico and Ceuta is the only project where the birds have been studied intensively. This is about to change hopefully very soon. The workshop is a great opportunity to standardize protocols and methods and reinforce links between Mexican Shorebird biologists. People from Sinaloa, Nayarit, Baja California, Mexico D.F. and Sonora are interested to join us for almost two weeks and we will attempt to establish a Snowy Plover Research and Conservation project in the future.

Over the last month we had some encouraging feedback from students who want to work with us. At the moment we try to recruit a number of Mexican PhD and masters students for ecological and evolutionary projects to make better use of the huge data set that we have assembled over the years. And of course we will try to infect them with the ploverology fever. Training and research on natural populations are very important to understand the problems and needs of the animals. Only when you know what is going on you can try to improve the situation by effective conservation actions and convince people to protect habitats. This year we'll have two new field assistants who will work with us through until July and three more students who want to get a flavor of the work before they'll decide whether they will commit to the cause.

As in 2011 we will keep you updated through this website, facebook and twitter. Popular Plover watch will be revived and we hope that you will interact with us for some lively discussion.

End of the season

posted Jul 8, 2011, 11:00 AM by Clemens Kuepper   [ updated Jul 8, 2011, 12:33 PM ]

Rain, heat, mud and more sand flies. The rain means that the breeding season for Snowy Plovers and the other ground nesting shorebirds and terns is ending now. Last week some heavy down pours flooded the last dry parts of the nesting area. Everything was covered by 10 cm of water. All remaining active Snowy Plover and Least Tern nest were lost and the chicks died in the eggs.

The end of the season is unpredictable for us as well as the plovers. At Bahía de Ceuta the rain season usually starts around already 24 June, but during the first three weeks there are often only showers. Nowadays global climate changes makes predicting the date more difficult even the local shamans struggle to forecast the beginning. Over the last few days many plovers started to gather in flocks or moved to other beaches or other wetlands, a clear sign that breeding is over. We had hoped that at least some more of the Snowy Plover nests would get lucky and hatch because the breeding season this year started very late but it didn’t work out in the end.

Working in a wetland during the rain season is very exhausting. Everything is muddy and slippery, it is hard to move around. Even plain walking requires some effort. The ground is pure, deliciously smelling mud and with every step one sinks ankle deep into it. There are mosquitoes and sand flies everywhere. The repellent does not help anymore because of the high humidity. Even the muddy roads are not safe after rainfall and we have to be careful not to get stuck with the car. Temperatures at night rarely fall below 25°C and without air condition (which does not exist at the field station) it is hard to catch sleep.

We will terminate our intensive fieldwork this weekend. After more than 80 days without a break everybody is tired. The heat, mosquitoes and the long working hours day and night have taken their toll. We love field work but during these days everybody is glad once we can call it a day. At the moment we tie up the loose ends. We have to clean up, prepare the equipment for storage until next season, enter the data into spread sheets and tables. Field work is reduced to the only remaining task: trying to locate and follow the remaining families and identifying the color banded plovers that are still around. A few more chicks will hopefully fledge, so this season will not be regarded as a complete disaster.

We will check the site and the progress of the remaining families once more on one of the next weekends.

No end to female desertion

posted Jun 24, 2011, 5:23 PM by Clemens Kuepper

In my last blog post I elaborated at length about that Snowy Plover females would stay from now on longer with the broods and stop deserting their families. Turns out that my predictions were completely wrong. Nearly all females have deserted their broods so far. The longest time a female stayed after the chicks had hatched were meagre 6 days! The males have to provide the care all by themselves. What is happening this year?

It turns out that the weather this spring was unusually cold. The water covered the area very long and breeding started late. These were bad signs because usually the chicks that hatch early in the season survive usually best and from early June on chicks have to cope with little food because the water that contains insect larvae and arthropods their main prey has evaporated. Moreover, when breeding starts late, there will be fewer nests. This year we have found only 62 until now, usually there are 30 - 70% more. Fortunately for the Snowy Plovers this year, during the period when the water evaporation was strongest,  there was an unexpected influx of brackish water which was pushed into the salt works from the North through strong winds. Although a few nests were flooded, the incoming water saved a lot of chicks from starvation. Until now we have recorded more than 25 fledglings. Until the end of the season this figure might double. Usually we get 50 fledglings only with 130 to 160 nests. This is great news for the Snowy Plovers of Bahía de Ceuta.

But you probably wonder what does this have to with deserting females? Well, female Snowy Plovers usually desert their broods when they have good perspectives for another breeding attempt. Most of these females will nest again at Ceuta or at other sites in Mexico. However, they only will desert if they feel that their mate can care for their current offspring alone. This is the case when environmental conditions are good, so that one parent can bring up the chicks alone. It means there has to be plenty of food (water), whereas predation and competition are low. Like this year in Ceuta. And the deserting females seem to get it spot on since the deserted Ceuta chicks are surviving very well!

The Least Terns at Ceuta are also doing well. We found already more than 300 nests. More than 100 have hatched already and the tern parents are busy feeding the hungry tern chicks all over the salt works. Plovers and terns breed in the same habitat but otherwise they are completely different. Tern parents feed their chicks with fish. The tern chicks will just sit in the salt works and wait for the parents to bring their meal. Because their food is full of proteins and fat tern chicks don't run around a lot, they rather invest all their energy into growing. This means they quickly become fledglings! The plover chicks on the other hand have to hunt their meals themselves. Growing takes therfore a bit longer, but their life is certainly more adventurous.
 

Should I stay or should I go?

posted Jun 8, 2011, 7:31 AM by Clemens Kuepper

Early June, we passed the half time mark of the breeding season and things at Bahía de Ceuta are super busy. The Snowy Plover number have turned out more promising than we expected after the slow start. The field team has found 50 nests until now and there are still plenty of Snowy Plover males scraping, so there will be soon more. 20 of these nests had hatched until yesterday and 20 are still incubated. However, more importantly chick survival is still very good, there is still some water left. Over the last two days we re-sighted 16 families with 32 chicks alive. Incredibly, apparently the field crew has not missed a single nest so far. All families in the salt works come from known nests. This is a fantastic job by Medardo, Rene and Wendy! The first chick 'fledged' - well, 'fledged' may be a bit exaggerated since it isn't exactly able to fly yet, but after 23 days looking after it day and night its father decided that it is now big enough to look after him/herself. The dad is now looking for a new mate to try to squeeze in one more nest and if he is lucky he can bring up a few more chicks.

There has been an interesting switch in behaviour lately: females are staying now more often with the broods than before. However, desertion has not completely stopped yet. Some females are still deserting and looking for a new male but others remain with the brood. Why do some stay whilst the others desert?  This is actually one of our research question. It can be best described as a trade-off between a) remating again and producing more young b) staying and providing care to make sure that your current offspring survives best. In the beginning of the season this decision is easy, one parent is enough to look after the chicks and nearly all females desert. But when things get harder both parents are needed and the females tend to stay with the brood. This of course means they forego further reproduction because once they finished with these chicks the breeding will have ended. During this time it is fascinating to watch the individual plovers when this happens and I haven't found a way yet to be able to foretell whether they stay or desert
. I often wonder how exactly the females decide whether they will stay or desert. It doesn't appear to be so trivial like: 'if the chicks hatch after 1 June I will stay if they hatch before I will desert'. Do they count the prey items that available and divide them by the number of existing families? Then they would be mathematical geniuses. Do they check out the condition of the chicks from other families? If they good and growing they desert if they look poor they rather stay. Do they count the number of available males to pair with or do they check their quality? If there are a lot of males or very sexy males available they desert if there are few, they rather stay. Is there some interaction going on with their mate?

Birds are not known to be able to count. Plovers are probably not different, they don't recognize (or don't care) whether there are 1 or 5 eggs in the nest. And they also seem not be able to count their chicks otherwise brood mixing and adoption wouldn't be so frequent. Anyway, this is a fascinating topic and enough research to do for us in the coming years.

Some more hot numbers. The number of Least Tern nest that we have found has now passed 250. Apparently there are about 50 more in the making. The first chicks have now hatched which means there is stink bomb alarm whereever Least Tern chicks hang around in the salt works. Least Tern are bombarding intruders with their excrets if they get to close to their young. I have some sweet memories of being hit by something that consists of rotten/digested fish with freshly washed hair on late afternoon nest checking rounds. A lot worse than the diaper changes I have to do these days.     

Brood time

posted May 30, 2011, 4:21 PM by Clemens Kuepper

The first hatching wave is rolling through Bahía de Ceuta. 15 nests hatched until Sunday and the chicks of these early broods have fairly good chances to survive. There is still plenty of water thanks to a relatively cold May which means plenty of food for hungry chicks. Under these conditions they are growing very quickly. Chicks can become independent as soon as they are able to fly which can be after 23 to 25 days in the beginning of the season. If there is little food, it takes rather 40 to 50 days. Fast growing chicks are also good for the caring male. First, it means that his genes will be transmitted to the next generations if he will be a successful parent of soon independent chicks that are able to reproduce themselves in the future. And second he might be able to have another go on producing a new nest with a new mate later in the season.

Snowy Plover territories are usually close to water where the prey for the chicks is abundant and easily accessible to the chicks. Because the water is evaporating fast the plover families are soon squeezing together in the most productive areas and there are endless conflicts between them. About 10 of the 15 families are currently fighting over an area of less than a hectar. The situation is not helped that every day more nests hatch and more families arrive at the preferred brood habitat. The caring parents, usually the males, are fighting with their neighbours and chase intruders all day long. Chicks are constantly trespassing the territory borders which causes more fights between the parents. If the chicks are young or weak it can be quite dangerous because they can be severly injured during these fights but after they survived a week they are usually quick enough to escape from these attacks. At this age the game resembles rather run and hide play: First, they trespass the border to get some more juicy food, then they have to run from the angry territory owner and hide behind the parents. They leave the parent fighting over all the trouble and simply search for food at the other end of the family's territory. 

Once the chicks are getting older the parents often lead them away from the competitve brood areas with easy access to water to areas further away from the water which are not so intensively contested. The chicks are now big enough to easily run to the distant water once or twice a day to drink but otherwise life is more peaceful.  

At the end of May most of the females still desert the broods within the first few days of the chicks hatching. There are plenty of single males left who are looking for a female to mate with and the couples then have to hurry if they want to complete the clutch successfully. At the end of June or the beginning of July the rainy season will start and the rain and incoming tidal water quickly floods the breeding area, so the chicks have to be out of the eggs by then to have a chance to survive.
 

Least Tern Invasion

posted May 19, 2011, 3:39 PM by Clemens Kuepper   [ updated May 19, 2011, 4:59 PM ]

Middle of May, the egg laying is most intense now. At Ceuta not only Snowy Plover are busy with their breeding activity but also other threatened birds. The salt works are home to a large Least Tern colony which is now buzzing with breeding activity. Least Tern are spectacular flyers and I really enjoy watching them diving for fish or shrimps in the small water bodies at Bahía de Ceuta. Over the last years this colony has been expanding. In 2010 we estimated the size to be 200 - 300 pairs. This is quite substantial  and good news for these threatened birds. This year we want to know it more exactly and therefore Felipe and Oscar, two students from Universidad Autonoma de Sinaloa are counting and monitoring the tern nests. This is not the easiest work. Terns are very aggressive at the nesting grounds. They seem to be so small when you watch them on the ground or in fishing, but they are very brave and attack intruders with spectacular swoops aiming at the head of the intruder. Walking among their nest is not really recommended. Getting close to their eggs even less. But Felipe and Oscar are tough field biologists and very enthusiastic! They found and marked already more than 100 nests. And many more pairs are courting and will be laying more clutches over the next few days. There is a real  Least Tern invasion this year at Bahía de Ceuta.

Of course, a few days after complaining in my blog last week that Snowy Plover breeding is late this year and that there are still no signs of chicks, the first chicks hatched. And yesterday the second clutch. Finally Snowy Plover broods! Broods are so much fun to watch and work with! The chicks are very cute. Fluffy small creatures, only about 6 g when they hatch, with far too long legs. It always amazes me that within a few hours after having worked so hard to come out of the egg, they are already running around and explore curiously their new world. Then the family will start to move to their brooding territory a few hours after the last chick hatched. This can be quite an adventurous journey. Snowy Plovers like to nest close to the water. But at Bahía de Ceuta the water levels are strongly fluctuating. If you nest is to close to the water it is easily flooded. But by now the water evaporates gradually. This means that by the time the chicks are hatching even if the nest was initially close to the water line,  water and food are now quite far away. The parents have to lead the tiny chicks to an area with enough food (spiders, insects, larvae, earth worms) so that the chicks can grow as fast as they can. The journey can be long, some family move up to 3 km during the first 24 hours of the chicks life. The journey is also dangerous, it often takes them through the territories of other Snowy Plover families who see the migrants as intruders and competors and there are lots of fights between families and nesting birds. The chicks are attacked frequently by the residents and can be severly injured. Not surprisingly a good number of chicks dies during this demanding journey.

For some families the journey is a lot harder because one parent has already deserted the brood. This leaves the other one to care for the chicks alone including the defence duties. This year in the two families that have already hatched the female was gone within 24 hours and the male has now to do all the hard work of bringing up the chicks alone whilst the female will be looking for a new partner to start a new family. The first family with Snowie 1 and 2 as parents chose a territory close to breeding Black necked stilts. These is  not the most friendly neighbourhood and one chick died already during the conflicts. Such tragedies happen frequently. However, yesterday, the field crew spotted the deserting female courted by a new male.

Love and death are very close together... 


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