Piping plovers rebound on Great Lakes shores


Special to the Journal

LANSING — Piping plover advocates are looking to capitalize on the bird’s record-setting success last year by expanding habitat restoration efforts.

Piping plover nests were found on the shores of all five Great Lakes last year for the first time since 1955.

The shore-dwelling bird disappeared from most of the Great Lakes in the 1980s and was listed as endangered in 1986, said Vince Cavalieri, the Great Lakes piping plover recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At one point, up to 600 pairs nested throughout the Great Lakes. In 1990, only 12 pairs remained.

Once found on sandy beaches from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, most survivors clustered around Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan’s northwest shore.

But with the discovery of a nesting pair in Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park last year — the first to take up residence on Lake Erie for 60 years — the winds have changed. Researchers found 76 nesting pairs throughout the region in 2017.

“Finally the last two or three years we’re starting to see bigger numbers in Ontario, in Wisconsin,” Cavalieri said. “We’ve got nesting in Illinois now.”

There’s a new call to restore and protect plover habitats — and the Huron-Manistee National Forest’s Lake Michigan shoreline is one location under consideration.

A stretch of that shoreline at Ludington State Park has been an excellent spot for plovers, hosting eight nesting pairs in the past, Cavalieri said.

They’ve declined in the last four years, however, and only one pair remained last summer. Higher water levels have swallowed up stretches of the beach and predators like the merlin, a native falcon, have attacked nests.

Advocates have focused on protecting piping plover nests, said Christie DeLoria, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes coastal program coordinator. That’s done mainly by placing wire cages over nests to keep predators out and by limiting access to nesting grounds.

Eggs are often abandoned if a nest is washed out by high waters, one of the pair dies or if they become too agitated by nearby activity. Beach-goers in Northwest Michigan often come across signs warning them of closed nesting sites.

The hope was that increasing the birds’ numbers would allow them to spread.

Two projects on the shores of Lake Michigan have successfully developed plover-friendly habitat: one at Wilderness State Park on the northern shore of the Lower Peninsula, the other on a series of eroded islands in Wisconsin’s Lower Green Bay.

DeLoria has headed the project at Wilderness State Park where plovers abandoned the shores in 2006 after invasive, fast-growing vegetation infiltrated what used to be unadulterated beachfront.

“(The plovers’) strategy is to look like the beach,” DeLoria said. “And that’s how they survive, to look like the sand and the cobble.”

Results came quickly.

Park staff started clearing brush and trees from the shore in 2014, DeLoria said. In the summer of 2015, they observed a pair nesting there. In 2016, that same pair returned to raise three chicks.

Cavalieri said measures exist to protect the birds at Ludington State Park, like expanding the area of the cage enclosures. But the beach’s popularity limits even those options, and the opportunity for habitat restoration is limited.

“It just may be that Ludington is the kind of place where we have to wait for the lake levels to go down before we see a bunch of birds come back there,” Cavalieri said.

But there may be opportunity farther up the coast at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, which hasn’t hosted a nesting plover pair since 2010, said U.S. Forest Service forest biologist Philip Huber. It’s part of Huron-Manistee National Forest.

The beaches there are narrow — sometimes only 2 to 3 feet wide before they butt up against sandy cliffs — and high lake levels haven’t helped.

Simply put, there’s not enough room for plovers, aside from the occasional nest among the dunes.

There was talk of using heavy equipment to flatten the beaches, Huber said, but the expense, long review process and logistical issues of moving heavy machinery into a roadless area make that unlikely.

And in a rapidly shifting environment like the dunes, such efforts could be wiped away in a single season.

“We just didn’t believe it would be a good thing to be mucking around on the beach trying to make nesting habitat for the plovers,” he said, especially without guarantees of its permanence.

Spreading cobble along the beach and among the dunes would be more feasible and make the area more attractive to plovers, Huber said. There would still be no guarantees, but the project’s lower cost and relative ease make it easier to justify as an experiment.

Continued success requires continued maintenance — a lesson Wilderness State Park staff learned last summer.

The female didn’t return to the nest the pair had established the year before. After waiting a short time, her mate also left. Invasive spotted knapweed and sweet clover had again overtaken both the shore and hopes for another round of chicks.

DeLoria said staffers learned from that failure. They’re now trained and equipped with herbicides that should make it easier to keep the beaches clear. She said she hopes maintenance will become easier as they continue to beat back the vegetation.

Meanwhile, plover advocates are looking for the next habitat to rebuild, especially historic nesting sites that are near enough to established colonies like the Sleeping Bear population to allow the chicks to recolonize it easily.