With mid-summer approaching, piping plover chicks are hatching throughout the Great Lakes region, ushering in a particularly vulnerable time for these endangered shorebirds. Listed as federally endangered in 1986, the Great Lakes piping plover population has increased steadily from about a dozen breeding pairs to around 75 pairs annually. Thanks to many Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Team partners – including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other government agencies, University of Minnesota and other universities, the Detroit Zoo, as well as Audubon and countless volunteers – the population is halfway to the recovery goal of 150 breeding pairs.
Yet adult piping plovers and their chicks still face dangers daily, including disturbance from beachgoers, predators, and dogs off leash. While many nesting locations are monitored frequently, the birds cannot be watched 24/7, which means we rely on beachgoers to be aware of any plovers nesting nearby and the importance of giving them space to nest and rest. Chicks are able to run around within hours of hatching, but cannot fly until they reach about 23 days old. That’s over 3 weeks that tiny plover chicks (weighing less than an ice cream scoop!) must survive amid many dangers.
Audubon Great Lakes recently launched an education and outreach program to reach new audiences in northern Michigan, including tourists from across the Great Lakes who come to the Traverse City area for vacation. Not far from Traverse City, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is home to the greatest concentration of nesting piping plovers in the Great Lakes. As a plover stronghold, the success of those birds in raising their families is a key determinant of the annual success of the entire population. As such, Audubon is working to increase the awareness and stewardship of beachgoers in the area to ensure the safety of nesting plovers during the height of summer when the beaches are the most crowded.
Audubon kicked off their outreach program on Endangered Species Day by holding an education tent at Sleeping Bear Dunes and Leland Harbor, the latter being a site where tourists board ferries to North and South Manitou islands, where plovers also nest. Audubon volunteers interacted with the visiting public by encouraging beachgoers to sign a pledge to protect the plovers by keeping a safe distance, remove trash from the beach, keeping pets leashed and giving birds 100 feet of space to safely nest and rest. They also shared plover fact sheets, actions each of us can take to share the shore with these birds, and locations of nearby beaches where dogs are allowed. To engage with folks in a fun way, volunteers asked plover trivia questions, had a prize wheel for plover memorabilia, and even provided plover coloring pages for kids. The weekend tabling events were a success – reaching dozens of tourists – and volunteers will continue these efforts for several weekends through the end of July.
By educating one beachgoer at a time, Audubon Great Lakes and the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Team aim to build support and advocacy for these tiny endangered shorebirds who call the Great Lakes beaches home. We have seen firsthand the public’s overwhelming enthusiasm when piping plovers decided to nest in downtown Chicago at Montrose Beach and in Maumee Bay in Ohio. We know that these birds are resilient, as evidenced by their comeback from such low numbers only a few decades ago. But they could still use our helping hands to help the population continue to grow. Most importantly, piping plovers have the power to bring people together, and already have a strong cohort of fans who advocate for their protection every day. By widening the reach of our education and outreach efforts, we can create an even bigger fan base to encourage others to do their part to safeguard healthy, disturbance-free beaches that these birds need to thrive for generations to come.