“Sauble Beach is for the Birds” – some agree, others do not

The following is an article sent to us from EcoJustice, Canada’s largest
environmental law charity, as it appeared in ‘Nature’ magazine.

                                     “Sauble Beach is for the Birds”

“Not long ago we thought the endangered piping plover would never appear in Ontario again. After a nearly 30-year absence, these tiny migratory birds returned to the shores of the Great Lakes, including Sauble Beach in 2007. Unfortunately, they didn’t receive a warm welcome from everyone.

Ecojustice has a long history of working to protect the piping plover.

Plovers are shorebirds that winter as far south as Mexico and Florida, then fly north to nest in the late spring and early summer.  They need a specific habitat, free from disturbance, to reproduce successfully in their shallow nest. Unfortunately, this can mean conflict with humans, who also like to hit the beach as soon as the sun comes out.  Recently, a music festival near Chicago was shut down to protect a pair of plovers and their nest.

Piping plovers and their habitat are protected under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. Legally, this means that no one, including municipalities and towns in Ontario, is permitted to carry out any activities that harm the small birds or their habitat. Sometimes Ontario municipalities need reminding of the law, however.

In the summer of 2018, Ecojustice, working with our clients Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature, stepped up our efforts to protect plovers near Sauble Beach. The town of South Bruce Peninsula was raking a portion of Sauble with heavy equipment, compromising not only the plovers’ nests but also their habitat.

We asked the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to order the Town to stop raking plover habitat and beach maintenance activities that would damage piping plover habitat.

The Ministry issued a Stop Order to that effect but the Town of South Bruce Peninsula appealed this Stop Order. Ecojustice helped our clients, Ontario Nature and Environmental Defence, intervene in this appeal.

Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature called expert witness Peter Middleton, an amateur field ornithologist from Owen Sound, Ontario, who has been involved with piping plover recovery efforts at Sauble Beach since 2007. At the hearing, Peter Middleton, as well as the Ministry’s experts, all agreed that certain aspects of the beach had to be protected in order to protect piping plover habitat.

The Hearing Officer on the appeal has issued a report which, if followed, will help stabilize the plover habitat and assist the population to rebuild. These recommendations include:

  • Prohibiting the removal of natural material within 30 feet of the water’s edge;
  • Maintaining the “swales,” small, shallow pools of water on the beach, as plovers depend on them for foraging.

The Hearing Officer’s Report was a victory for Ecojustice and our clients. The report agreed that Sauble Beach is an important habitat for the piping plover and the Town of South Bruce Peninsula should not carry out any activities which harm the birds.

Unfortunately, the Stop Order which was appealed during this hearing has expired, so the Ministry has not yet adopted these recommendations in a legal instrument. Nevertheless, the Hearing Officer’s recommendations lay out a clear path for the type of protection necessary for plover habitat at Sauble Beach. Ecojustice will continue to be involved in the protection of this important little bird, wherever it chooses to make its home.

Saugeen Times Editor’s Note:

Not far down the Lake Huron shoreline from Sauble Beach, in Port Elgin (Saugeen Shores), there was a triumphant story of how the community and thousands of the visitors over the summer came together to protect a nesting pair of Piping Plovers and their young family.

                                       For larger views, CLICK on Images

(All photos by Sandy Lindsay – Saugeen Times)

The Town of Saugeen Shores cordoned off a large part of the valuable beach landscape and erected a cage barrier to protect against wildlife predators.  There was round-the-clock monitoring by volunteers, telescopes were set up to allow visitors to see the little ones up close, without being up close.  Everyone was excited and respectful at the same time.  People came from across North America to watch the tale unfold.

The result?

Four perfect hatchlings that everyone took to heart and protected so that they all survived.  Even more unusual was that both parents, odd in itself, stayed with the brood until they fledged (flew the nest).  Very rarely, if ever, were there unruly people or people who voiced bitterness at losing a prime piece of beach.  Instead, the community built a tourist attraction around them. There were lectures on the beach about the plovers, beach eco-systems and other subjects around the environment.

Albeit it was only for a few short weeks in the summer of 2014, but it was one that few who experienced it will ever forget.

Children learned first-hand how feathered parents care for their young, how important it is to conserve an endangered species and give them a hand up.  Grandparents brought their grandchildren, many from urban settings to see nature up close.  It was a learning experience for everyone … the young and the young-at-heart.

Saugeen Shores was cited for its caring protection of an ‘at risk’ species and everyone who was even a little involved feels a little better and proud at helping four little creatures and their parents survive.  What is a few weeks of giving up a stretch of beach in the grand scheme of things … really?