Saturday afternoon I arrived back to the nest at about 5:30pm hoping to see if the fourth and last chick had hatched. Yes it had hatched! Judging by how sleepy and that he appeared to be still a bit wet and sticky, I think it had happened within the past hour.
Piping Plover chicks are precocial birds. That is a word biologists use to describe a baby bird’s stage of development at birth. Precocial means that shortly after hatching, the bird is fully mobile. Plover chicks are not completely mature, they still need parents to help regulate their body temperature, but they have downy feathers and can run and feed themselves within an hour or so after emerging.
The opposite of precocial is altricial. Birds that hatch helpless, naked, usually blind, and are incapable of departing the nest, are altricial. Robins and Cardinals are examples of altricial birds.
Weighing about as much as a nickel at the time of hatching, Piping Plover chicks are able to feed themselves but are unable to regulate their body temperature. They need to tuck under Mom and Dad to warm up.
It makes it hard on the parents when hatching is stretched over a twenty four hour period. The day old chick was full of vim and vigor while the newborn could barely walk. To make matters even more challenging, and because the nest was sited in an extremely exposed location, the parents were trying to move the entire family, including the newborn hatchling, to a safer and less exposed site on the beach.
The adults piped softly to the newborn, coaxing him to leave the nest. He kept taking a few steps and then flopping back toward the nest.
In the meantime, the three older chicks were out exploring the beach in short forays and then snuggling together under Mom or Dad.
After an hour or so of watching the youngest hatchling struggle, slowly making its way across the beach, the parents eventually succeeded in moving all four chicks to a safer location at the base of the dune where there were divots, dried beach grass and seaweed, and new vegetation sprouting, providing much needed cover.
By day’s end all four were tucking under Mom and Dad.
It was a gift to witness the beautiful Clam Fam hatch day, a day I won’t soon forget. So small and sparrow-sized, you could hold an adult Piping Plover in the cup of your hand, but so beautiful, fascinating, resilient, and intelligent a species of bird.