Victorian beachgoers have been urged to leash their pets, after Deakin University ecologists found evidence of threatened shorebirds mauled by dogs, including the discovery of one dead chick dumped in a rubbish bin.
Researchers from Deakin’s Centre for Integrative Ecology, within the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, have long been working to halt the decline of the hooded plover, a threatened species that begins nesting on Victoria’s surf beaches at the start of spring.
Wildlife and Conservation Biology Associate Professor Mike Weston said this research was recently expanded to include the radio-tracking of newly hatched chicks, to give a more accurate picture of what was threatening their survival.
“The battle to save threatened shorebirds which breed on our beaches rages every spring and summer, as thousands of Victorians and their dogs enjoy time at the beach, and the birds desperately try to breed,” Associate Professor Weston said.
“Sadly, the chances of surviving from hatching to the age at which they can fly, a mere 30 days, are so low that chick death is considered a major conservation problem.”
“The chicks feed themselves within hours of hatching, and that means these ‘balls of fluff’, weighing as little as about five grams, move a lot, while their attentive parents shepherd them around the beach, and work to keep them warm and safe from predators.”
“Tracking such small and mobile creatures is a real challenge, so after two decades of research we decided to get bolder in our approach.”
Deakin honours student Tom Schmidt led the radio-tag project at beaches on the Bellarine Peninsula, Mornington Peninsula and Bass Coast, allowing researchers to find the bodies of chicks that had not survived, which were then sent off for post-mortem inspection.
“From the bodies we found, we determined dog and bird attacks were the lead candidates as causes of death,” Mr Schmidt said.
He said this had been expected by the team, but the body of one bird they found left them in utter shock – a mauled chick dumped in a rubbish bin at an entry point to Barwon Head’s 13th Beach.
“We knew the signal was coming from the bin, so we had to scan each item in the bin to locate the chick,” he said.
“The whole time I was thinking to myself that this must be a mistake, how could a small flightless chick of a threatened species end up in a bin?”
“The tiny body was tied into a bag containing dog faeces, and the injuries were consistent with dog attack. Internal organs protruded and a second bag was used, apparently to conceal the evidence.”
Associate Professor Weston said it was a shameful act, and showed dog attacks could be playing a prominent role in the decline of hooded plovers.
“This is not a trivial matter. Beachgoers must obey the prevailing rules and regulations, particularly the leashing laws,” Dr Weston said.
“Responsible dog ownership on beaches means that dogs should not be able to hunt and kill birds or other wildlife.
“Our philosophy has always been to find solutions to promote coexistence, to share the beach, with restrictions as a last resort. The dog walking community on our beaches needs to rise to the challenge, we need them to help save this species.”
On May 1st the final 2 chicks from Point Nepean fledged bringing the total of fledged chicks on the Mornington Peninsula for the 2016/17 breeding season to 13. To put the significance of this figure into context, there had only been 11 chicks fledge over the 3 previous seasons combined. The last year where there had been double-digit fledglings was in 2006/07.
At this stage it is difficult to attribute the success to any single factor. It is imperative that we look at long term trends rather than focusing too much on the results or failures of single seasons. However, this current result is a much needed boost to the hard work provided by the growing team of dedicated volunteers backed by the support of BirdLife Australia, Parks Victoria and concerned community member
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And the good news is: dogs have been banned from the Mornington Peninsula National Park.
It has taken many years to achieve this result and many many people have contributed to this positive outcome. I cannot name them all but importantly they all had Hooded Plover conservation foremost in their minds. They all gave up their own leisure time to protect this species whilst also putting their safety at risk.
This effort over many years by many people used science to identify limiting factors, involved staff from many organisations who contributed many unpaid hours and dozens of volunteers who have had to watch tiny Hooded Plover chicks disappear, sometimes see them die in front of their eyes.
But the work is not over yet and there is a need for more research and monitoring. The good news is, it will be more pleasant on the beaches once this ban is in force.
The science is clear but Victoria’s Minister for Environment chooses to ignore it or she would rather see dogs in a National Park than native animals.
After years of counting Hooded Plovers, recording their breeding outcomes, and the behaviour of visitors in the Mornington Peninsula National Park, long term scientifically based monitoring clearly indicates a number of important and disappointing facts in relation to Hooded Plover conservation in the Mornington Peninsula National Park:
Volunteers have been counting Hooded Plovers in the Mornington Peninsula National Park on a regular basis for 20 years or more. However, in recent years, unpaid volunteers have been solely responsible for collecting and interrogating the data.
The results of surveys carried out four times per year over the last four years has been averaged and displayed (Figure 1). Clearly, the population is in decline.
Each Hooded Plover breeding season in the Mornington Peninsula National Park, volunteers, Parks Victoria and BirdLife Australia staff closely monitor nesting, egg laying, hatching of eggs and fledging of chicks in the National Park. In the last five years, the average rate of failure for each egg laid has been calculated as 96% (see Figure 2). Clearly this rate of failure to reproduce for a population of threatened shorebird is not sustainable and explains why the National Park’s Hooded Plover population is in decline.
Volunteers, Parks Victoria and BirdLife Australia staff also monitor and record the number of dogs seen on Hooded Plover breeding beaches in the Mornington Peninsula National Park and whether or not the dogs observed are on a leash.
Results from 305 observations in the summer of 2014/15 clearly identify that 75% of dogs run free on Hooded Plover Breeding beaches in the Mornington Peninsula National Park, (BirdLife Australia 2015).
One may ask, is a dog off its leash a risk to Hooded Plovers? Volunteers once again provide the answer. In December 2012 two members of the public monitoring a Hooded Plover chick at Point King on the Mornington Peninsula, directly observed a Labrador kill a thirty five day old Hooded Plover chick. The dog was not on a leash.
Minister Ignores the Science
Despite this clear evidence of a dog killing a Hooded Plover chick and the compilation of science collected by the public, BirdLife Australia and Parks Victoria staff, The Minister refuses to ban dogs in the Mornington Peninsula National Park, see The Age 21 March 2015.
The Minister is ignoring the advise from:
Ornithologists, ecologists, zoologists, volunteers, a forum put together by Parks Victoria, the Victorian National Parks Association, BirdLife Australia, the Friends of the Hooded Plover and the majority of Parks Victoria staff and the Department of Environment Land Water and Planning to mention a few.
The Minister is risking the survival of Hooded Plovers and appears she would rather a continued unsustainable breeding outcome for Hooded Plover in the Mornington Peninsula National Park in favour of upsetting dog walkers. The same dog walkers who mostly ignore park regulations and walk their dogs off leash in a Victorian National Park. The same dog walkers of whom two have assaulted a volunteer.
The Minister is also out of step with the local MLA for Nepean, Martin Dixon who has addressed Parliament and suggested dogs should be banned from the Mornington Peninsula National Park. The Greens have also suggested, “off the record” that they will support a total ban of dogs but have yet to say so publicly.
My thoughts are, if you live in Melbourne and want to see a Hooded Plover before they become locally extinct in the Mornington Peninsula National Park, you had better get down to the National Park quickly. There are fewer than 600 Hooded Plovers left in Victoria and only 60 in the National Park.