For its tiny, cutest visitors, Ontario’s summer of love began with a suspected murder and a cheating scandal, and ended with babies born in a lab. 

In early May — like he had for every summer of his life — Flash settled into Woodland Beach on the 70-kilometre-long coastline of the Township of Tiny, two hours north of Toronto. He was ready for another season of family fun. The four-year-old piping plover was a really, really small, quirky, fluffy white and brown critically endangered shorebird with orange legs. So was his partner, 10-year-old Pepa, with whom he had fallen in love in Tiny. He’d won her over with his flawless nest-making skills and enchanting mating dance, during which he stood tall and walked confidently, kicking his orange legs forward quickly and rhythmically. 

The plover pair were longtime partners, splitting their time between the beaches of Florida and Ontario’s Georgian Bay, where the peninsula of Tiny is nestled. This summer, the non-human snowbirds were tending to their nest, with Flash sitting on the three eggs, while Pepa counted down the 28 days that it took for their popcorn-sized babies to emerge on the beach. When that happened, as is the way of the plover world, Pepa would fly back to Florida, leaving Flash to raise the babies and guide them south to her. 

Photo of a piping plover looking at the camera
In mid-May, Flash, a four-year-old plover disappeared. Witnesses suspect he was murdered by a merlin. His death was the start of one of the most scandalous summers Ontario plover lovers have witnessed. Photo: Sydney Shepherd / Birds Canada

But Flash’s fatherhood dreams were not to be. Soon after Pepa laid the eggs, he vanished, his chirp never heard again. Witnesses say a large bird, perhaps a merlin, had often swooped on the sand to hunt and had probably killed him.

Alone and unequipped to take care of her nest, Pepa left Tiny Township heartbroken. This left the humans of Woodland Beach with an extraordinary and unique challenge — how do you save four tiny eggs belonging to one of the most endangered birds in North America, one that vanished from Ontario for 30 years and has been long considered at-risk down the east coast of North America and across the Great Lakes region? 

The solution: join forces with plover lovers and caretakers across Ontario and Michigan to quickly transport the eggs to North America’s only plover captive rearing centre. The controlled facility at the University of Michigan is managed by the Detroit Zoo and there, the eggs could be artificially incubated and the babies raised until they’re ready to be released back into the wild. 

The Michigan facility was set up in 1992. An egg from Ontario was first taken there in 2019 but it didn’t hatch. This year, 11 Ontario plover eggs have been transported and at least four have hatched. One of them is Flash and Pepa’s child: a tiny, fuzzy cotton ball named Woody, after the beach where his nest was found. On Monday, he was released into the wild.

Photo of a plover in a captive rearing.
Woody is the first Ontario-laid plover to be born in captive rearing. He is Flash and Pepa’s son. Photo: Detroit Zoo

Cross-border conservation programs are rare, even when the migratory paths of animals suggest they should be the norm. That’s probably because they require a huge amount of bureaucratic paperwork, partnerships and prompt action. 

This summer saw a record total of 80 plover pairs (up four pairs from 2017, the last record year) and 84 nests across the Great Lakes. More pairs means more eggs and, hopefully, more babies. In a perfect world, every one of the eggs laid results in a baby plover, or a fledgling, to solidify the record number of plovers chilling on Great Lakes beaches. But that doesn’t always happen: some eggs aren’t viable, some are destroyed by human activity and some are abandoned and not saved. 

This year, there have been four abandoned nests in Ontario, the most ever. Half of them can be traced to Flash’s untimely death.

One piping plover in the back watching over her day-old fledglings
Nancy, a 12-year-old plover, watches over her days-old fledglings on Ontario’s Wasaga beach in July 2023. Photo: Hannah Stockford / Birds Canada

Heartbreaker, you built a nest for me

Five kilometres south of Woodland Beach, 12-year-old Nancy had spent the spring mating and nesting for the first time with two-year-old Gotawsi, whose name means “six” in Anishinaabemowin, as he was the sixth bird to migrate back from New York last year. The honeymooning couple was watching over its four eggs on Wasaga, the world’s longest freshwater beach, when another bird stirred up the sand in an epic drama worthy of Greek mythology.

It was Pepa, who is biologically Gotawsi’s mother. But human rules don’t apply in the animal kingdom and a limited plover population makes for limited options. In Gotawsi, Pepa found companionship again. The two were spotted mating — or “copulating” as is the official term — in secret. Together, they created a nest of eggs.

When Nancy found out, she left Gotawsi, and her eggs. Whether from love, guilt or both, Gotawsi wooed her back with presumably a very sincere and powerful mating dance. This left Pepa, and her eggs, abandoned twice in one summer. She hasn’t been seen since. 

In the midst of this love triangle, lovingly dubbed “Plove Island” by local birdwatchers after the reality show containing similarly scandalous escapades (albeit without the suspected murder — or birds), the good news is no viable egg has been lost.

“If Flash hadn’t died, they would have just hatched their eggs, and everything would have been fine,” says Andrea Gress, the piping plover co-ordinator for Birds Canada. With the help of its community of volunteers, the conservation organization keeps close watch over the Ontario’s Great Lakes beaches from the moment piping plovers arrive, fencing off any nests, putting up signage to raise awareness as waves of people head to sandy shores for the holidays and shoo-ing off predators. 

“We might not have abandoned eggs. But our population is so low in Ontario that it just takes the loss of one bird to stir stuff up.”

A photo of a plover on the beach
The growth of the plover population across the Great Lakes depends on how many eggs successfully hatch and how many plover fledglings survive. Photo: Hannah Stockford / Birds Canada

Eggs on the beach

Both of Pepa’s nests were found very soon after she left them. Her eggs with Flash were laid on May 21 and set to hatch on June 10 or earlier. The sooner they got to the Michigan facility, the better the fledgling’s chances of survival. 

Thanks to almost 15 years of collaboration, including weekly summer Zoom calls during the pandemic, partners in Canada and the U.S. were quickly informed. Officials from Environment and Climate Change Canada and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came together to ready the large number of permits needed to transport the eggs. The latter had a year-long backlog of permit applications, so getting emergency approval would require a bureaucratic miracle.

“It is, logistically, a challenge,” says John Brett, a wildlife biologist at the Canadian Wildlife Service. “We have our own legislation and rules that govern the possession and transport of eggs … there’s a whole separate set of documentation that is required to bring eggs into the U.S. It’s a lot of paperwork.”

The idea of creating a streamlined process to facilitate cross-border plover conservation was in the works when the pandemic hit and shut borders down almost entirely. This year’s abandoned eggs were the perfect opportunity to test the long-awaited plan. 

Environment Canada ensured the eggs met the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s unique import requirements, which includes a health certificate that said the eggs were clean, intact and hadn’t come in contact with any disease, especially avian flu. 

Then the Toronto Zoo packed the two sets of Pepa’s abandoned eggs into portable incubators — a mini-fridge that can be plugged into a car port so eggs stay at the right temperature and humidity.

Brett took the first set. He made an appointment in advance with Canadian Border Services Agency to help streamline the crossing. The only time slot available was 8 a.m., so he strapped the cooler-incubator in the passenger seat and left Toronto at 4 a.m., driving four hours to the Windsor-Detroit border. 

It’s the kind of baggage and journey Sydney Shepherd had never taken before. The piping plover program fieldwork coordinator for Birds Canada, she drove Pepa’s second set of eggs, fathered by Gotawsi. Instead of making an appointment, she lined up at the cargo lane and hoped the paperwork made sense to officers on both sides of the border. “You kind of just drive really, really carefully,” Shepherd said. “And you hope that the eggs won’t hatch on the way.” 

Both sets of drivers, and eggs, made it across. 

Piping plover on the beach
This summer, Ontario’s Wasaga Beach is home to four tiny plover fledglings. Photo: Neal Mutiger / Birds Canada

Maybe ‘romantic scandals on the beach’ aren’t such a bad thing for an endangered species

Michigan’s captive rearing facility has a 90-per-cent success rate with eggs. With plover populations still so low, everyone involved agrees cross-border conservation can only help expand the piping plover population and the success of this year was nothing short of miraculous. 

“I think plovers indicate a healthy ecosystem,” says Jillian Farkas, Great Lakes piping plover  co-ordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “You need these cute little cotton balls with toothpicks in this ecosystem to be able to just have a healthy system.” 

“This year has been a truly collaborative effort across our border and I’m grateful to be part of it,” Farkas adds. “Everyone needs to go to the beach and see these quirky, tiny birds!” 

But one successful year with record pairs of plovers doesn’t guarantee the population will remain strong next year. That depends on a whole host of factors, Gress says. The main one is to keep beaches natural and wild: covered in sand dunes, patches of vegetation, twigs, rocks and shell. 

A sign that warns people to stay outside of endangered species protected area on Wasaga Beach, Ont.
Conservation efforts, like those run by Birds Canada at Ontario’s Wasaga Beach, include fencing off plover nesting areas to increase their chances of survival. Photo: Fatima Syed / The Narwhal

“Ontario continues to have this attitude that raked beaches are perfect,” she says, describing beaches where the sand has been completely bulldozed and the rocks and shells and other naturally occurring beach debris has been removed. “That’s something we can control but it requires a big attitude change in the province.” 

Brett explains that plovers set up nests midway on the beach, “a sweet spot” not too close to incoming waves or vegetation that harbours predators. Pristine beaches remove the sweet spot, forcing them to nest close to the waterline where storms can wash entire nests away.

The guidelines to protect endangered species aren’t complicated; they’re just time consuming. Beach preservation requires public awareness and education, which takes time. Beach preservation in the face of fluctuating water levels and weather conditions fuelled by climate change takes time. Beach preservation in the face of development pressures and increased human population also takes time. 

But for the tiny, quirky piping plover, it seems conservation efforts are working and growing. And now captive rearing makes the survival of Ontario plovers a little bit more likely. 

Plovers pictured by patchy bushes and twigs — their natural habitat they need to thrive.
To survive and thrive, plovers need beaches to exist in their most natural, wild form, full of sand dunes, patches of vegetation, twigs, rocks and other beach debris. Photo: Hannah Stockford / Birds Canada

“Last year, we actually did not have any nests that were abandoned,” she says. “It might not be something that we use every year, but at least we have that tool in our toolkit so that we can do everything we need to do to save this small bird — even if they’re creating romantic scandals on the beach.”

“Maybe especially then,” she says. After all, if one male plover is taking multiple mates and making more nests, that’s not a bad thing for the plover population. 

“Our female plovers, like Nancy and Pepa, are mature. They know what they want and they go for it,” Gress added.

At least one nest in Ontario has hatched: Nancy and Gotawsi’s days-old fluffy baby plovers are scurrying and chirping across Wasaga Beach, jumping in between vegetation, driftwood and sunbathing humans. Soon they’ll all fly south and, hopefully, come back next year for their own summer romances. 

Will Nancy and Gotawsi stay together? Will Pepa return and find a new beau? And will Woody visit the Ontario beach where he was born to find his own mate? 

Love is complicated — even for the world’s tiniest shorebird.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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