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Piping Plovers


It's shaping-up to be a banner year for the Piping Plover.

The Great Lakes population of the small shorebird has been listed as an endangered species since 1986.

At that time, there were right around a dozen nesting pairs.

Today, more than 60 nesting pairs are sitting on nests around the Great Lakes.

Dr. Francie Cuthbert is a professor at the University of Minnesota.    She's also on the staff at the University of Michigan Biological Research Station near Pellston.

And she's been following the piping plover for more than 20 years.

Cuthbert says she sees good things in this year's numbers, "We actually think, this year, that we may have the largest number of birds nesting since recovery.  And, actually, prior to that time when people were keeping records.  We think that's really an exciting change from listing in the mid 80's until now."

Piping plovers need a very specific habitat to build a nest.  They prefer an area not too far from water, in a sandy area with plenty of small pebbles.

They use the pebbles to build their nests.

And a popular nesting location is right along the Lake Michigan shoreline in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

More than half of the Great Lakes population is within the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

Biologist Ethan Scott works at the lakeshore.

He says this time of year he's one of many keeping an eye out for plovers, "It's kind of a multi-agency effort out here in the Dunes.  Fish and Wildlife Service kind of runs the whole thing because it is an endangered species.  But we've got a cooperative agreement with... it's through, both the University of Minnesota and MDNR."

On the day I met Scott at the Lakeshore, we needed a pair of waders as so we could walk across the Platte River to a prime nesting spot where at least 6 nests had been counted so far.

And then Ethan says, "Well let's creep up there and see if we can see any good things happening."

Ethan sees a pair of plovers is hanging around an area of beach, near some pieces of driftwood, and away from other known nests.

The birds haven't been documented in the log book yet this season, so they must be late-arrivals.

And it looks like they're preparing to build a new nest.

They've started to make a scrape, or a small hole dug into the sand.  Ethan Scott says a scrape like this is what could become a nest if the birds decide to stick around, "No eggs at all, but you can see their scrape.  Right there.  Really nice defined one.  In mostly sand, so no cobble around here at all on this one.  We'll keep our eyes on them.  See if they decide to actually put their nest here or look for a little more normal, quote un-quote, habitat."

If the birds do decide to call this spot home, and eggs are eventually discovered, the DNR will place an exclosure around the nest.

The exclosure is something like an upturned child's playpen; mesh sides and top.

Scott says the holes in the mesh allow the plovers to come and go as they please, and keep out potential predators, "The adults generally do do a good job of trying to protect the nests as best they can.  But, probably the biggest threat would be predators.  Which is why getting an exclosure up as soon as we can find an active nest, that's really vital."

Once those exclosures are up, the main job is to make daily rounds of all the known nests to check on eggs, on parents and, hopefully soon, on young, newly hatched plovers.

That job often falls to interns and volunteers.

Craig Campeau is one of the interns this summer.

He's a student at Grand Valley State University studying natural resources management.

And he has some good news for Ethan, "Looks like the North 3 male was incubating." 

Ethan: "Oh, great."

Craig:  "The female was on the shore.  And as I approached the nest I saw him walk away and he started head-bobbing."

Ethan: "OK."

Craig:  "So he was probably sitting down."

Ethan:  "We'll keep a good eye on the nest throughout the day and then hopefully, all things go well we might be able to call in and get the eggs back."

When there are questions about whether the adults are able to keep the eggs safe, those eggs are sometime taken to the Pellston Research station for safe-keeping... with dummy, wooden eggs placed in the nest as a replacement.

If and when the adults return or get back into a regular sitting schedule, the real eggs are brought back.

A lot of effort for a small bird.

And when those eggs hatch, another effort begins:  placing small color-coded bands on the birds legs.

These will help identify the birds as they migrate and, with luck, come back to build their own nests in the future.

Biologist Francie Cuthbert says the more work they have, the better the plovers are doing, "It's a huge job because the numbers have gotten so great.  So that's a very good sign.  And at some point, we're hoping it'll just get out of our hands.  We won't be able to manage it even with a big team of banders.  That will be a good sign that they're on their way to independence."