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Little eggs, high winds and waves: a piping plover rescue story

There were 76 pairs of Great Lakes plovers as of last year.
There were 76 pairs of Great Lakes plovers as of last year.

Listen to today's Environment Report.

Piping plovers are little shorebirds, and they're an endangered species in the Great Lakes region. But they’re making a comeback thanks to conservation efforts and even some heroics.

Last year was pretty exciting for Mary Birdsong. She's a shorebird monitor at Presque Isle State Park, on the Pennsylvania side of Lake Erie.

"Previously I had only reported the presence of piping plovers, and this last year I got to actually watch over the first successful nest in more than 50 years,” she says.

Two plover pairs actually nested at Presque Isle last year, but one nest was overcome by 50 mile an hour winds and waves, with the eggs still in it. Luckily, Mary Birdsong was on patrol and made a call to the proper authorities. Soon, she was out on the water with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.  

"The waves were very high that day, and we were just in a little flat bottomed boat, and I was holding the box of eggs on my knees and cushioning them from the blows of hitting the waves," she says.

The rescued eggs were transferred to an incubator at the Detroit Zoo and then moved to a captive rearing station in northern Michigan. The two viable eggs hatched into chicks.

Vince Cavalieri is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and he’s the Great Lakes piping plover recovery coordinator. 

"Our population is still so small that every pair, every individual, really counts," he says.  

He says the Pennsylvania chicks were among 16 hatched through the program last year. They were fledged and released in the Upper Peninsula in August, and one was actually seen by winter monitors in Florida earlier this year.

"We hope that bird makes it back to Michigan or somewhere in the Great Lakes to breed this summer," says Cavalieri.

Most plovers are still found in northern Michigan, and now, in late April and early May, is when they’ll start to arrive. But Cavalieri says last year was the first time the birds nested on all five Great Lakes in 55 years. He says habitat restoration has played a big role in young plovers finding and nesting on sites like Presque Isle.

A team of people removed invasive plants from the park that had taken over the shoreline.

"They like really wide beaches with a long distance to a tree line,” Cavalieri says. “They like beaches that have kind of a gravelly or cobbly substrate to nest in."

And once plovers find a beach they like, where they’re successful, they’ll come back. Cavalieri says it’s good news that there were 76 pairs of Great Lakes plovers as of last year, but the recovery goal is 150 pairs. That means continuing partnerships to maintain and protect habitat, and maybe a few more dramatic nest rescues like the one along Lake Erie.

Mary Birdsong says she was out there for six hours that day last year, and even though they couldn’t get the adult plovers to take back their nest, she says the experience was fulfilling.

"It was just filled with victory, a little bit of defeat, and just kind of exhilarating experience for me," she says.

The year was so memorable for her that she got a piping plover tattoo on her left ankle.

Kara Holsopple is with the environment news program The Allegheny Front.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Kara Holsopple