October 2015

Vol. 43, No. 5

Field Notes: The Adopted Piping Plover of Winthrop Beach

Sean Riley

The Rossetti chick. (All photographs by the author).

If you’re a Piping Plover, Winthrop Beach can be a scary place. At any given moment a disgruntled human could lob a beer can at you or a Peregrine Falcon might attempt to eat you. Luckily this is not that type of story, for this is a tale of redemption.

The 2015 Piping Plover season started out rough this year. Stretches of inclement weather in May washed out a number of nests, and killed many of the first broods of chicks. The Rossetti’s Piping Plover pair, named for their consistent nesting location in front of Café Rossetti’s on Winthrop Beach, have been successful parents for years. Like clockwork, the Rossetti male is the first to arrive in March and claim his traditional spot. By April 21 of the pair was already on eggs, and by April 28 they had a full clutch, right on track. On May 25 the entire nestful of eggs hatched overnight, and when I arrived the next morning for my plover-watching shift, I saw three small chicks running around under the watchful eye of the best plover parents around.

The adopted Piping Plover family feeding by the waterline.

The days following the hatch brought heavy rains, ultimately killing two of the three Rossetti chicks. While such loss is always sad to see, the pair seemed content with their remaining chick. Meanwhile another brood of chicks had hatched to a second Piping Plover pair the day after the rains cleared, so in addition to the lone Rossetti chick, four other small chicks were now exploring the beach. A few days later we noticed the Rossetti adults were watching their chick with slightly less attention than usual, letting it range outside of their typical close proximity. Over the next few days they watched it less and less, with the chick mainly being off on its own all day, a very odd behavior given the perfect parent model we had observed in previous seasons and the very young age of the chick. Right around the one week mark, the Rossetti pair started scraping again, displaying courtship behavior, and were no longer watching their chick at all.

The fully-fledged Rossetti juvenile prior to departure

The next day the other monitors and I could not locate the chick and assumed the worst had occurred. Later that morning we located the other plover family, but instead of finding four chicks, we saw the adults walking around with a brood of five. The slightly larger Rossetti chick seemed right at home following the other chicks around, foraging and roosting. While the adoptive adults would not brood the foster chick, they rarely chased it and seemed far more tolerant than one would expect. As the weeks went on the Rossetti adults never again acknowledged their surviving chick, and focused their attention on their new nest. As for the adopted chick, it continued to follow its new family around, and eventually fledged and departed Winthrop at the same time as its adoptive siblings.

In two seasons of working with Piping Plovers on Revere Beach and Winthrop Beach, I have never seen anything but aggression from Piping Plovers toward other adults and other pairs’ chicks. The Rossetti saga played out in a fashion that the other monitors and I could never have imagined, beginning with a sad and perplexing case of abandonment and ending with a successfully fledged bird beginning its next journey south.

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