Three decades after the Great Lakes piping plover was declared an endangered species, the small (and very cute) shorebirds had a banner year in 2016: a record number of plover chicks left their nests and the oldest known plover — at 15 years — was spotted this fall in its winter habitat in South Carolina.
"Clearly the more chicks we can produce, the better chance the birds have to build up their numbers," said Vince Cavalieri, a wildlife biologist and Great Lakes piping plover recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We've seen a drop-off in the adult population due to predation and the best way to counteract that is to make sure we're producing even more chicks. That keeps the population going in the right direction."
Most of the birds nest in Michigan, with a handful in Illinois, New York, Wisconsin and Canada.
In 1986, when the birds were declared endangered and at risk of extinction, there were only 16 pairs, and that summer, only 10 chicks fledged — or left the nest — after their wings and feathers had developed sufficiently for flight.
This year, wildlife biologists counted 75 pairs, and 133 chicks fledged, up five from last year, Cavalieri said.
While an increase of five may not sound like a lot, Cavalieri said it underscores the progress biologists have made to protect the birds against growing risks to them from development in both their nesting grounds along the shores of the Great Lakes — primarily Lakes Michigan and Superior but also along Lakes Huron and Ontario — and their winter habitat along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Jillian Liner, director of bird conservation for Audubon New York, the state office of the National Audubon Society, agreed.
"This is a tiny population of a bird species ... and every single individual counts," she said. The increase of five "may seem small but it actually is really significant."
This summer was only the second time that plovers had returned to New York to nest in more than 30 years, Liner said. The first pair was spotted in 2015 and produced one chick. No chicks were produced this year.
Another first: a bird watcher spotted a Great Lakes piping plover in South Carolina in November that officials believe — from the band on its legs — to be the oldest, said Cavalieri, who works out of an office in Lansing, but makes frequent trips to some of the the birds' favorite nesting areas, among them Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, North and South Manitou islands in Lake Michigan, and the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula.
Cavalieri said this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service took several measures to protect the plovers' nesting areas: it increased its use of nesting enclosures to keep out predators such as raccoons, gulls and crows; added more volunteers, including college students, to monitor the nests; and closed some stretches of beach to keep dogs and people away.
Adult plovers weigh just an ounce or two and measure 6 or 7 inches long. They have sand-colored plumage that blends with the sandy beaches and shorelines where they nest. Their population first began to decline in the 1930s.
Cavalieri said protecting the birds' winter environment is now seen as just as important as maintaining their nesting grounds, a "new frontier" for wildlife biologists.
"A lot of these places are heavily developed now and shorebirds ... are getting bumped off the beach" by unleashed dogs and people driving all-terrain vehicles, Cavalieri said.
If the birds don't have enough time to eat during winter because of those disruptions, and if they're constantly in a cycle of not getting enough fat in their diet, Cavalieri said they may not be in top condition to survive the long flight back to the Great Lakes.
Cavalieri said biologists don't know precisely how long it takes the birds to make the trip from the coastal areas of the South to the Great Lakes, but some have done it in as little as three days, and for most others, it takes two to three weeks. Some start their journey by hopping up the Atlantic Coast, but once they fly inland, biologists don't know how often they stop because sightings are rare.
Biologists have been banding their legs for 20 years to track them.
Male plovers arrive first in their breeding grounds from early April through mid-May and stake out their territory. The females arrive later and seek a male with a territory. They lay three or four eggs in their nests, shallow depressions in the sand lined with small colored pebbles and shell fragments.
Both parents take turns incubating the eggs over the next 30 days, and both parents feed the young until they can fly, about a month after hatching. The adult females fly south first, starting in mid-July, and most of the plovers have left their summer home by early September.
The Great Lakes piping plover is one of three populations of piping plovers that breed in North America, but it is considered distinct from the others because it does not breed with either of the others.
Atlantic Coast plovers breed along the Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland, Canada, to North Carolina, while the Northern Great Plains plovers breed from Alberta and Manitoba, Canada, south to Nebraska. Those populations are threatened, which means they are at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future.
The Northern Great Plains' population is estimated at 2,000 pairs; the Atlantic Coast population is approximately 1,800 pairs. The winter ranges for the three breeding populations overlap somewhat.
Cavalieri said the plovers aren't the only species to benefit from nesting ground protections.
"The Great Lakes have the largest fresh-water dune ecosystem in the world," which is the only place on earth where other animal and plant species live, including Houghton's goldenrod and Pitcher's thistle, both threatened species.
"By protecting the plover, you're protecting the whole system," he said.
Liner said the plovers are "an important part" of a rare ecosystem.
"The presence of that bird indicates it‘s healthy and functioning. It is a cute, adorable bird that people can appreciate."
Detroit Free Press