For Immediate Release
April 1, 1999

Contact: Tom MacKenzie
Pager (800)291-9642
Jeanne Bohannon, GA DNR


ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Federally threatened piping plovers that use Georgia's coast for wintering are now migrating northward to their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada. The annual journey undertaken by dozens of these rare tiny travelers encompasses thousands of miles, as well as three private and public wildlife management organizations.

In 1997, Kevin McIntyre, the resource manager on privately owned Little St. Simons Island, noticed several brightly colored leg bands on two piping plovers on the island's beaches. He knew that the plovers, small shorebirds that could fit in the palm of your hand, spend the winter in Georgia and other southern states, but breed in the northeastern coastal states, the Great Lakes and Canada. But who banded these plovers, he wondered, and more importantly, where were the birds from?

To find that answer, Kevin recorded the colors of the bands and contacted the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' shorebird biologist, Brad Winn.

After chasing leads through the ornithological community, Winn contacted Lauren Wemmer, a University of Minnesota graduate student. Wemmer studies the small population of piping plovers that nest in the Great Lakes states under a program funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wemmer and Winn discovered that most of the banded plovers found in Georgia were originally banded on the shores of lakes Michigan and Superior. Incredibly, three of the banded plovers were hand-reared from eggs salvaged from an abandoned nest and released on the shores of Lake Michigan. In addition, two of the color-marked plovers were from the Great Plains population and were banded at a nest on Lake Diefenbaker, in Saskatchewan, Canada.

"It was very rewarding to be able to talk with Lauren and compare notes on the banded plover's Georgia wintering site and their summer breeding locations more than one thousand miles to the north and west," said Winn.

State and federal wildlife biologists as well as naturalists working for Little St. Simons Ltd. have recorded a total of 30 color-banded piping plovers using the Georgia Coast. Most of those birds were observed in the Altamaha River Delta which includes Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge, Altamaha River Sand Bar and Little St. Simons Island. Additional banded piping plovers have been observed on Wassaw and Ossabaw islands. On the legs of birds, researchers had placed small, individually-numbered, metal or plastic color-coded bands, distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for easier identification with a spotting scope.

The significance of the Altamaha Delta as a critical piping plover wintering site was emphasized by the results of GADNR's mid-winter waterbird survey conducted on the Georgia Coast on January 22, 1999. State and federal biologists, assisted by volunteer bird identification experts, recorded 151 piping plovers on the 90 miles of Georgia's barrier islands. Nearly half of those birds (73) were on Altamaha Delta sands. Birders also counted 26 piping plovers on Cumberland Island, 16 plovers on St. Catherines Island and five or fewer plovers on several other islands. At least three piping plovers were counted on Wolf Island, a National Wildlife Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"The 1999 survey total of 151 plovers is a new record, because the counts from previous years average around 120 birds," said John Robinette, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Savannah Coastal Refuge complex.

Georgia Department of Natural Resources recently protected Altamaha River Sand Bar from human encroachment through rules of usage. Although this dynamic island is much smaller than forested barrier islands, it provides undisturbed feeding and resting areas for wintering coastal birds. The Altamaha River Sand Bar site is also the cornerstone of seabird and shorebird conservation on the coast of Georgia. In fact, more piping plovers use this small stretch of beach annually than any other site along Georgia's coast.

Little St. Simons Island is a privately owned island that operates a nature-based tourist lodge. Wolf Island is protected as a National Wildlife Refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Lauren was concerned about so many of the Great Lakes piping plovers wintering in one spot." said Winn. "I assured her that her birds were in a food-rich environment and relatively safe location. And, barring a disaster like a major winter ice storm or oil spill, the plovers and other Altamaha Delta shorebirds should be fine."

The protection offered the birds throughout their migration route and summer and wintering sites is essential to their survival. On the northern leg of their life cycle, the Great Lakes piping plovers in Michigan and Wisconsin benefit from protection from numerous volunteers, the Bad River Tribe, the National Park Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Although the number of Great Lakes piping plovers is still critically low -- 24 nesting pairs were counted in 1998, this number exceeds the 23 pairs counted in 1997, and is double the all-time low of 12 nesting pairs recorded in 1990.

Piping plovers once nested on the wide, sand and cobble (mixed sand and gravel) beaches throughout the Great Lakes. Today, the species nesting areas are limited to the more undisturbed shoreline areas of North Michigan and Wisconsin. Although the population's decline seems to have stopped, recovery of the species is far from being met. Full recovery of piping plover populations will require many more breeding pairs in a stable population throughout the Great Lakes States. Recovery of a stable Great Lakes piping plover population will require continued efforts from volunteers, state and federal wildlife agencies and especially the public.

Winn says people can help piping plover recovery by complying with signs closing areas to certain activities to protect plovers and other wildlife, and also by volunteering at a local State Park, national Lakeshore, or National Wildlife Refuge.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprising more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies.

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Release #: R99-030

1999 News Releases

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