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Great Lakes Piping PloversRecovering a Species on the Brink of Extinction
by Kim Mitchell
Photo Credit: Gene Nieminen, USFWS
Gems of natural beauty, the shores and beaches of Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan are also home to one of the nation’s most endangered birds, the piping plover (Charadrius melodus). Fewer than 20 pairs of piping plovers lived along the Great Lakes during the early to mid-1980s, and all were in northern Michigan. The Great Lakes population of piping plovers was listed as endangered in 1986, and since then, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) staff researchers, and dedicated volunteers have partnered in an intensive recovery effort to protect every bird and nest to help increase numbers. Although still endangered, Great Lakes piping plovers are recovering and have returned to historic breeding sites in other parts of Michigan, as well as in Wisconsin and Ontario.
Nest protection and monitoring have been critical to protecting our plovers. Each April, a diverse group of partners comb the beaches and coastlines with a goal of locating every plover nest. Once found, wire mesh enclosures are placed around each nest to protect eggs from being eaten by birds and mammals. It may sound simple to put wire enclosures around nests for protection, but if done incorrectly, the disturbance could cause adults to abandon the nest or make it easier for predators to prey on eggs. Research has helped develop the concept and fine-tune it so that birds are protected and not unintentionally harmed.
Essential to the piping plover recovery program’s success is population monitoring, data collection, and public education programs for beach visitors. The plover monitors spend many hours on busy beaches to make sure that people abide by beach closure signs and stay away from plover nests. These individuals are ambassadors who educate beach visitors about the value of piping plovers as part of the Great Lakes community and responsible beach use behavior (the need to keep beaches clean of trash to prevent attracting predators like gulls and raccoons, keeping dogs on leashes. The monitors check plover nests daily and record information that provides researchers and partnering agencies with data about nest development, predator abundance, and impacts of beach use.
After piping plovers began nesting at the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin, the Service, National Park Service, Wisconsin DNR, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, USDA-Wildlife Services, and The Nature Conservancy replicated Michigan’s conservation work. They combined resources to protect the Apostle Islands’ plovers by hiring plover monitors to spot nesting pairs, developing plover signs to let beachgoers avoid disturbing the nests, putting up nest enclosures to protect the nests from predators and conducting targeted predator control.
There is a large group of partners who meet annually to plan, prioritize and coordinate recovery of this rare bird. The group’s hard work is paying off. Before listing, there were fewer than 20 pairs of piping plover in the Great Lakes, but now, with a dedicated recovery program, the population has topped 50 pairs for a decade.
Kim Mitchell, an ecological services outreach coordinator in the Service’s Midwest Region, can be reached at email@example.com or 612-713-5337.
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