If there were Oscars for birds, I would propose a category called “Best performance by a bird defending its nest from a predator”
“And the winner is ……….. Kittlitz’s Plover” (cue loud applause)
So on what do I base this award?
Well, I was atlasing the area known as Gouritsmond, a small coastal town at the mouth of the Gourits River about a half hour’s drive from Mossel Bay. The Gourits River has its origin at the confluence of the Gamka and Olifants rivers, south of Calitzdorp in the Klein-Karoo and winds its way to the Indian Ocean across plains and through mountains.
Approaching the sea it widens into a broad estuary which is humming with activity in the holiday season, when the town expands its population by about 80%, but was dead quiet when I visited it on a weekday in October 2018 and I had the whole parking area at the boat launch site to myself, other than a waste van which came to empty the rubbish bin.
Braving the strong cold wind, seemingly unseasonal but those who live along the southern Cape coast will tell you to expect 4 seasons in one day, I ventured up and down the river’s edge with its wide muddy margin and took the opportunity to photograph the Plovers and other shorebirds present, of which the Kittlitz’s Plover was the least shy.
Every now and then I popped back to my car to escape from the cold wind, which my 3 layers of clothing were battling to defend. On one of my forays along the shoreline, a Kittlitz’s Plover’s curious behaviour caught my attention – it ran off as I approached, then suddenly dropped flat on its belly, wings spread wide and flapping about as if mortally injured.
Stepping closer, I was about 3 metres away when it miraculously recovered, ran further and repeated the dramatic death scene while watching me with beady eyes. All the while it was leading me away, presumably from a nest which was not apparent, and I did not try too hard to find it for fear of giving the Plover a heart attack.
The Plover repeated this act each time I approached and the drama of its performance had me chuckling in delight and admiration for the ingenuity of the species.
In this way the Kittlitz’s led me for a way down the river margin, until I turned and retraced my steps towards the parking area, whereupon the Plover also turned and flew back so that he was just ahead of me and repeated the act once more.
That was enough teasing for the day and I returned to the car, with the Plover watching me go – I imagined he had a look of “why go now, we were just starting to have some fun”
The Roberts app describes this behaviour thus : “When predator present, performs distraction displays including injury feigning, waving one or both wings and fanning tail to attract predator’s attention, sometimes flopping forward along ground..”
Apart from the dramatic Kittlitz’s Plover, the shoreline was occupied by several other species who favour this habitat –
Common Ringed Plover, a polar migrant which is present in Southern Africa from September to April
Common Greenshank, a Palaearctic (Europe, Asia north of the Himalayas, North Africa) summer visitor, mainly from August to April
Common Whimbrel, non-breeding migrant with circumpolar origin, present from August to March
Sanderling, non-breeding migrant from the arctic tundra, present from September to April
All of the above are long-distance migrants, whereas the Blacksmith Lapwing is a local resident, one that is found in most parts of Southern Africa – this individual is a good example of a juvenile, lacking the very distinctive markings of the adult, which often leads to incorrect ID such as Grey Plover and others
Another morning’s atlasing, another unique birding encounter