Great Lakes Piping Plovers Are Flying High with a Second Record-breaking Breeding Season

If you enjoyed some time on Great Lakes beaches this summer, you may have encountered a little sandy-colored shorebird called a Piping Plover. These birds are part of an endangered population that has been making quite the comeback over the last decade. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of researchers, agencies, volunteers, and other members of the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Team, the plovers recently celebrated a second record-breaking breeding season.  

Last summer (2022), 150 chicks fledged in the wild (from 72 unique breeding pairs), which was the greatest number of chicks fledged since the population was listed as federally endangered in 1986. This year, a new record was shattered: there were 80 pairs of Piping Plovers that nested in the Great Lakes region, the most pairs since being listed as endangered and eight more pairs than last year! This achievement is particularly exciting as the population has been relatively stagnant around 70-75 pairs in recent years. The bump in pair numbers is due, in part, to the record fledgling numbers from last year, demonstrating the carry-over success of a productive 2022 season. Importantly, reaching 80 pairs brings the population that much closer to the 150-pair recovery goal, a milestone that has reinvigorated recovery partners. The goal of the recovery effort is to restore and maintain a viable plover population within the Great Lakes and eventual removal of the population from the Endangered Species list. This goal is considered accomplished when the population of Great Lakes Piping Plovers reaches at least 150 nesting pairs for at least five consecutive years.

From dogs off leash to washouts to predation, Piping Plovers face an array of threats each breeding season. To help keep them safe, monitors and volunteers at nesting sites spend hours each day checking on the birds, educating beachgoers, and protecting plovers from dogs, predators, and other disturbances. Site monitoring is just one of several protection efforts coordinated by the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Team, which includes individuals from University of Minnesota, US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, US Forest Service, state DNRs, Birds Canada, Great Lakes Tribes, Detroit Zoo, Audubon, and several other organizations and agencies. Through partnerships across these entities, recovery efforts include nest protection via exclosures and fencing, site monitoring, education and outreach, captive rearing, and annual banding. These partners have helped the Great Lakes Piping Plovers grow from less than 15 pairs in the 1980s to a whopping 80 pairs this summer.   

From those 80 pairs, 128 chicks fledged in the wild, which is a fledging rate of 1.6 chicks per pair and above the annual recovery goal of at least 1.5 chicks fledged per pair. In addition to chicks raised in the wild, recovery efforts for Great Lakes Piping Plovers include captive-rearing. Whenever a nesting adult goes missing or if a storm washes out a nest, the eggs are rescued and brought into captive-rearing so that they have a chance of hatching. This summer, the captive-rearing program broke yet another record with a release of 39 fledglings from eggs that were rescued due to washouts and parental losses from predation (tying the 2020 record). The 2023 cohort of captive-reared birds were cared for by 22 zookeepers from 14 zoos, who ensured that the chicks were well-fed and had plenty of opportunities to learn to forage on their own and practice flying in the shoreline pen along Douglas Lake at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Michigan, where the captive-rearing facility is housed. 

Given the size of the 2023 captive-reared plover cohort, this year marked yet another first for the population: for the first time in the program’s history, birds were released outside the state of Michigan. Part of the recovery goal requires at least 50 pairs to nest outside of Michigan, the population’s stronghold. Releasing captive-reared birds outside the state is one approach to achieving that objective. Often, birds will return to nest at sites where they were released, so US Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners are hoping that is the case for the birds that were released at this year’s new sites, including four chicks released at the Cat Island Restoration Site (Cat Island) in Green Bay, WI; seven at two sites in Illinois (including Montrose Beach in Chicago, the former nesting location of Monty and Rose); and eight at Lakeview Wildlife Management Area in Henderson, NY.  

This year, 14 captive-reared birds were observed throughout the Great Lakes region and seven of those birds nested, making up 5% of nesting adults. For a still-small population, this is a significant contribution and it is likely that captive-reared individuals will make up an even greater proportion of the nesting population in future years as a result of this year’s record-tying cohort size 

"I was so honored to be involved in the first ever release of captive-reared Piping Plovers in Wisconsin,” said Tom Prestby, Wisconsin Conservation Manager for Audubon Great Lakes. “At least two of these birds lingered at the site for a few weeks after their release, hopefully indicating that they liked their new home and could return next year, increasing both the number of plovers and the diversity of the gene pool of the Cat Island population." Audubon Great Lakes coordinates staff, partners, and volunteers to monitor Piping Plovers at the Cat Island Restoration Site every day.

Another exciting update from the season includes re-established nesting locations where plovers have been absent for many years, but have returned to breed once again. These include three sites along Lake Michigan and one along Lake Huron, including a pair that re-established nesting on Temperance Island in Wilderness State Park – a site that hasn’t seen nesting plovers since 2005! There are more promising signs in the Wisconsin population, as a pair attempted to nest at Longtail Point about a mile from Cat Island, the first recorded attempt in Lower Green Bay outside of the Cat Island. Although the nest was not successful, it indicates that there is potential for the Cat Island population to expand to other areas of suitable habitat in Lower Green Bay. The western edge of the Great Lakes population’s breeding range has also recently been extended thanks to a pair nesting at Morris Point in Lake of the Woods, MN. The female of the pair hatched at Cat Island in Green Bay, but the male’s hatch location is unknown, which leads researchers to suspect that he may be from the Great Plains plover population since the nesting site is on the boundary between the two populations. Genetic work conducted by the University of Minnesota is underway to determine if this is the case.  

“Although just a single pair, these birds are potentially very important for understanding connections between the Great Lakes and Great Plains populations,” reported Francie Cuthbert, University of Minnesota, and Great Lakes recovery team partner. “Samples taken when chicks were banded will provide population identity for the father. If any banded offspring survive and return to nest, which population will they choose? Are chicks from this pair a source of new genetic material for the Great Lakes population?” 

If you are wondering how we know exactly which birds are nesting where, and how we can identify which chicks fledge each year, it is through annual banding efforts. The banding crew, led by Dr. Francie Cuthbert and Stephanie Schubel of the University of Minnesota, band every adult and chick in the population each summer so that we can learn about the survival, reproductive success, longevity, and migration patterns of this population. Banded Piping Plovers that are from the Great Lakes are easy to identify because orange is the unique color band identifier for this population. This year, the banding crew banded 161 wild chicks and 28 adults across the region – not an easy feat when birds are nesting as far west as Lake of the Woods and as far east as New York and Pennsylvania.  

“Banding the majority of Great Lakes Piping Plovers is a challenging but critical task involving coordination of multiple agencies and individuals and many miles of travel. Because 96-98% of our population is banded, we can monitor individuals throughout their life cycle. This allows us to learn important information about breeding and wintering patterns and locations that need protection," said Stephanie Schubel, Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team. “With resighting data, we can discover answers to research questions that inform management practices. And let's not underestimate the role banding plays in outreach. The ability to recognize individual plovers helps the public make connections with "their" favorite or local banded plovers. When I see people connecting with an individual plover, all the running around and coordination that goes into the banding season definitely feels worthwhile.” 

At state parks across the Great Lakes, the population experienced more successes. At Wilderness State Park, seven chicks fledged from three nests; that site has not experienced that much plover success since 2006. And even more exciting, two fledglings from each of the successful nests at the park were recently seen on the wintering grounds – one in North Carolina and one in South Carolina. At Cathead Bay in Leelanau State Park, five pairs fledged eight chicks, a record for that location. The nesting pair at Fisherman’s Island State Park fledged all four chicks despite the heavy recreational use of that site. And at Tawas State Park, a pair nested for the first time since 2015 and fledged two chicks. State Park managers have much to celebrate this year, and we are hopeful that birds will continue to return to these successful sites since we know that the more familiar a bird is with a location, the more likely they are to fledge more chicks. 

After a second record-breaking season, the Great Lakes Piping Plover population – and the recovery team partners – are flying high. It is rewarding to see such positive outcomes from the countless hours, helping hands, and vigilant eyes dedicated to protecting these small, adorable birds that call the Great Lakes beaches home during the summer months. Work still remains to be done to help them on their way to full recovery, but in the meantime, the team is celebrating another successful breeding season and eagerly anticipating the birds’ return to our beaches next spring. 

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