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Plover Versus Merlin in the National Lakeshore

Newly banded piping plover chick. Courtesy NPS
Newly banded piping plover chick. Courtesy NPS


For decades wildlife officials and volunteers have gone the extra mile to help the piping plover reestablish itself in the Great Lakes. A couple of decades ago the bird was nearly wiped out in the region.

But to help plovers sometimes means killing another threatened species. A small falcon called a merlin is a main predator of piping plovers.

Now there’s a new effort to catch and remove the falcons instead of shooting them. But it’s not easy.

Watch Out for Merlin
Alice van Zoeren watches a nest near the mouth of the Platte River where two chicks are missing. But van Zoeren says what really hurts is when adult plovers are taken, especially females. That reduces the number of possible new nests for years.

And the main predator to worry about is the merlin, a small but extremely powerful falcon. “A single merlin can take out five adult plovers in a very short period of time, like a week,” van Zoeren says.

That happened a few years ago here at Sleeping Bear. She saw one of the plovers snatched off the beach so fast that she didn’t really have time to react, much less prevent it.

“The merlin dove down, grabbed it and flew off with it. Initially it kind of labored and kind of hung onto it with its talons,” van Zoeren recalls. “Then it just pulled it right up inside its feathers and flew off. It was shocking to say the least. It was a horrible day.”

Plovers Struggling Recently
Piping plover is listed as an endangered species in the Great Lakes region. Its numbers have slipped over the last several years. They were up to seventy nesting pair, now they’re down to the mid-fifties.

Researchers think that’s mainly due to big storms during migration and freak cold spells where plovers winter in the Gulf Coast.

But predators are another big factor. A third of all plover nests in the Great Lakes are in Sleeping Bear Dunes. So if a merlin takes one, it automatically triggers a deadly response.

“If we see an actual take of a plover by a merlin that’s an immediate call (to) USDA Wild life Services and they’ll come out and perform predator control,” says Ethan Scott.

Scott, head of plover protection at Sleeping Bear, says it’s not an easy call to make. Merlin are beautiful and awesome to watch. And the bird is listed as threatened in Michigan.

But if it comes down to plover versus merlin the endangered species gets protection. Up to a limit. “I believe the state permit is thirty merlin, in the entire state of Michigan, associated with the piping plover program,” Scott says.

Bring in the Falconer
In the last couple of years though, the Park Service has another option.

If a merlin is seen swooping over a nesting site at Sleeping Bear, officials can call the Michigan Hawking Club. And members of the club will travel to the park as volunteers and try to capture the little hawk alive before it kills a plover.

Craig Fitzpatrick sets up an ingenious lure in the tall beach grass near the shoreline.

It’s a wire mesh cage and inside it are two house sparrows. The cage is strung between two small poles on swivels close to the ground. Anytime one bird moves, the cage swivels forcing the other bird to move too. And that movement is what attracts a merlin.

“And because their attack style is low and stealthy they come right in over the top of the grass and attempt to get the bait birds,” Fitzpatrick says. “And they run into this net.” 

Just behind the lure, he’s stretched a net maybe two feet high that’s hard to see against the back-drop of the grass.

Last year he caught a merlin on North Manitou Island. He took it back home south of Ann Arbor and trained it to hunt from his falconer’s glove. Fitzpatrick says it’s a very quiet way and intimate way to hunt.

He usually goes after small game with a much bigger red tail hawk. But he has a lot of respect for the little falcon’s speed and agility.

“Last year I was flying the merlin in an open field and I called it to the lure and I had a cooper’s hawk come in and try to take it from my feet,” Fitzpatrick says. “And the merlin was able to outfly the Cooper’s hawk, darting, dodging and weaving across this field. The flight skills of the bird are just amazing.”

Piping plovers are strong and nifty fliers too. Just not shifty enough to dodge a merlin bent on filling its belly.

Slow Progress
Hawking club members captured four merlin in the lakeshore last year.

So far this year, they’ve had zero luck, while federal wildlife agents have had to shoot a dozen merlin. And twenty-four plover chicks and one adult have been lost.

For Alice Van Zoeren and Ethan Scott whatever it takes to increase the likelihood that the plovers will survive is worth it. They spend days patrolling the beaches, setting up protective enclosures around nests and chasing away predators.

“We’re hoping for much better… like recovery,” they say. “A hundred and fifty pairs in the Great Lakes region. And 50 of those have to be outside Michigan.”

They believe as long as there are wide open sandy beaches with stony patches for nesting, full recovery of the piping plover is possible.