Driving along a quiet gravel road in the country, you notice a small bird with sleek, pointed wings fly up in front of the car. Luckily, you don’t hit it. The following day the same thing happens, in exactly the same place. You stop the car and look at the spot it flew from. At first you’ll see nothing. But if you search carefully you might find two or three well camouflaged eggs in a scrape on the shoulder of the road. With their elaborate pattern of flecks and lines, they look just like the stones they sit amongst.
The parent has returned and is now spreading its wings in a distraction display, so you move away to allow it to return to its eggs. The bird is a Black-fronted Dotterel and it’s not uncommon for them to nest on roadsides with cars whizzing past less than a metre away. Why do they choose such a dangerous place?
To answer this we need to look at their natural nest sites — where they nested before white people came along. Typical sites include sandy or stony river beds, lake shores, mudflats and any bare patches of ground, usually near water, and always in an open position with a view of the surrounding area.
There are many ways birds’ nesting habits have evolved to avoid predation. Some species hide their nests in dense vegetation, others place them at the end of a flimsy branch, while still others decorate the nest so it blends in with its surroundings (see some examples here).
Birds like dotterels, plovers and lapwings don’t waste much energy on building a nest but rely instead on the camouflage markings of the eggs and young chicks. The important thing is that they can see predators coming, which allows the parent to quickly leave the nest and perform a distraction display (raising or spreading its wings, similar to a ‘broken wing’ display — click here to see a photo), drawing the predator’s attention away from the nest. And in the case of the Masked Lapwing (also known as Spur-wing Plover), by hair-raising attacks on the intruder: divebombing with strident calls and, if necessary, striking with its wing spurs. Anyone who has inadvertently found themself close to a plover’s nest can attest to the effectiveness of this behaviour.
Dotterels, plovers and lapwings all belong to the same family, Charadriidae. Like ducks and quail they have precocial young, meaning they’re able to run and feed themselves shortly after hatching (as opposed to altricial young which hatch blind and helpless, and develop in the nest). Nesting on flat ground makes perfect sense for them.
Masked Lapwings are well known for nesting on sports grounds, golf courses, in the middle of roundabouts and even on flat roofs. This comes from the same claustrophobic tendency as the dotterel nesting on road shoulders. It’s not their fault humans have created habitats that seem ideal to them, even if in reality they can be fraught with danger.
So roadsides and cleared land both favour and sometimes, spell disaster for these little battlers. How can we help them survive when we find a dotterel’s nest on the edge of a road? I’ve seen well-meaning people place large rocks around the eggs in an effort to stop traffic running over them. This might work but, aside from creating a traffic hazard, disregards the bird’s natural instincts. Suddenly enclosed in a circle of rocks with its vision blocked, the parent would surely feel uncomfortable. It might even cause the bird to desert its eggs and lay again in another spot.
A better solution, if it can be arranged, might be a couple of easily visible posts placed a metre or two each side of the nest. But if it’s a quiet spot with little chance of being run over, the best thing is probably to leave it alone and hope for the best, rather than draw attention to the nest. The eggs will hatch in less than a month and with luck, the young will quickly leave the roadside in their search for food and shelter.
The Black-fronted Dotterel and Masked Lapwing are common in suitable habitat, but it’s a different matter for the threatened, beach-nesting Hooded Plover. In some places, fencing and signs have proved necessary to give these beleaguered little birds a chance. Click here for more information and an inspiring video on the work being done by Birdlife Australia to protect beach-nesting species.
In all cases, by being more aware of birds and understanding their needs we’re better able to protect them.