Great Lakes Piping Plovers
Individually unique color-band codes have given us the opportunity to get to know individual Piping Plovers. We are able to track some of them over many years, summer and winter. Here are a few stories about plovers we have come to know and love.
BO:X,g, at 15 years, now holds the record of the oldest plover recorded in the Great Lakes population. Two Great Lakes females survived for 14 years. His mate from 2014 and 2015, Of,GL:X,Y, is featured below.
This fellow is known as Box-gee (for the pattern of band colors on his legs) in Michigan and "Old Man Plover" in South Carolina where he winters. He hatched way back in 2002 at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and has been nesting near his hatch site since 2005. He usually wins the race to return to his nesting territory, or ties with another male, "Packer Boy" from Manistee (see story below).
The crew at Sleeping Bear Dunes is quite attached to him. During his many summers we've watched him successfully raise and fledge 36 chicks…he seldom has lost any.
At the end of each summer he wings his way south to South Carolina where a different set of plover monitors wait for him. July 2016 was his 15th trip south! We don’t know exactly what route he takes, but if he flew directly from his summer territory at Sleeping Bear Dunes to his winter territory near Charleston, SC and back, he would have migrated 25,752 miles so far. (The circumference of the Earth is 24,901 miles)
I hope to see him back up at Sleeping Bear Dunes again next April.
David McLean in South Carolina has made a post about Old Man Plover’s return south at http://birdingbulls.blogspot.com
Update Spring 2017: BO:X,g was seen along his way north at Port Dover, Ontario on April 11th and 12th. He made it back to his territory in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on April 13th, 2017. This is the same day he returned in 2015 and 2016. He was last seen at Port Dover around 6 PM (4/12) and arrived by 11:30 AM at Sleeping Bear - making the 330 mile trip in less than 17.5 hours. Not bad for an old guy. He has now traveled more than 26,640 miles in migration.
Update Summer 2017: BO:X,g found a mate at Sleeping Bear Dunes. They had four eggs and were well into incubation when he disappeared. The eggs were brought to captive-rearing and the only fertile one produced his last (and 37th) chick - Of,B/OO:X,G, or "Junior". This chick was released at Sleeping Bear Dunes and has now made it to Florida! BO:X,g's good genetics are well represented in the Great Lakes population.
Old Man Plover's Last chick.
"Little Cooper" - Shortly after his release at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
In 2012 on June 19th, a windy day at the mouth of the Platte River in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, two plover monitors (Ben Cooper and Ben Papes) were finishing their rounds checking on the nests and making sure all the adult plovers were accounted for. They turned back for a last look as a particularly large wave washed out one of the nests. Immediately they began searching for the four missing eggs. After hours of searching they found all of the eggs - an amazing feat considering how well the eggs are camouflaged. The rescued eggs were transported to Eastport, MI where zookeepers met them to bring the eggs the rest of the way to the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS). Once at UMBS they (like most other abandoned Piping Plover eggs in the Great Lakes) were raised by the avian specialist zoo-keepers who were volunteering there. Upon arrival it was discovered that one of the eggs had cracked and didn't survive. Another chick died at hatching.
Two of the eggs hatched sucessfully. Those chicks were initially housed indoors in a large box with sand on the floor and a feather duster hung over it to simulate a brooding parent. Recordings of the sounds of the shoreline were played to mask the human noises around them and to make their temporary home more like the beach. Once they were able to stay warm without assistance (thermo-regulate) they spent days outside in a flight cage along the shore of Douglas Lake. Here they grew, learned to find food and to fly.
Chicks in indoor pen
Chicks in outdoor flight cage
When they were flying very well, zookeeper Bonnie Van Dam, from the Detroit Zoo brought them back to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore where we released them, along with another captive-reared chick, near their origin and near wild-reared chicks of similar age. They were dubbed "Little Cooper" and "Little Papes" in honor of their rescuers.
Ready to be released ("Little Cooper" on right)
Just after release ("Little Cooper" on right)
Little Papes apparently didn't survive, but Little Cooper showed up in Volusia county, Florida after evading predators and navigating his way to the coast. He's been returning each summer to breed in Canada at Wasaga Beach, Ontario and continues to spend winters in Volusia county. He's a true captive-rearing success story.
"Little Cooper" in Florida
"Little Cooper" up north
Update Summer 2017: For unknown reasons Little Cooper didn't return to Wasaga Beach to nest this summer. He was seen several times in Michigan...both at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and in the Upper Peninsula at Au Train. No breeding behaviors were observed.
Update January 2018: "Little Cooper" was photographed in Volusia County, FL in mid January by winter observer John Kendall. He made it back to his winter home for a fifth year.
Update Summer 2018: "Little Cooper" returned to Wasaga Beach, Ontario to nest and successfully fledged four chicks.
Update 7/23/2019: "Little Cooper" made it south for the winter of 2018-19 (where they know him as "Jack the Pumpkin King"), then north again to breed at Wasaga Beach. (where they know him as Worsley). On 7/23/2019 he was spotted at Poplar Island, Talbot County, MD (www.poplarislandrestoration.com) on his way back south.
Update 8/21/2019: "Little Cooper" continues his trip south. He's now been sighted at Hilton Head Island.
Update Summer 2020: "Little Cooper" (aka Worsley) disappeared during incubation at Wasaga Beach, Ontario.
Of,GL:X,Y (“named” for her bands. Left leg - Orange flag, Green, bLack. Right leg – X for USGS aluminum band, Yellow) hatched in 2011 at Silver Lake State Park, south of Ludington, MI, and has nested since 2012 near the mouth of the Platte River in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. She has only been reported once on wintering grounds, in January of 2013, on an island off the coast of Louisiana. Because Piping Plovers are very tied to their wintering, as well as their breeding territories, it’s likely that she spends winters in that area and began her journey north from there.
This spring she didn’t return to Sleeping Bear Dunes at the usual time. Her mate from the past two summers, BO:X,g (See story above) waited alone for a mate to arrive.
On 5/2 and 5/3, David Bree, Park Naturalist at Presqu’ile Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Ontario, spotted and photographed her 420 miles (675 km) east of her usual summer destination. He reported his observation to email@example.com and our tracking of her travels began. It’s possible that the persistent northwest winds this spring blew her off course.
She was seen at Presq’ile again on 5/8, but by 5/9 and 5/10 she had traveled 120 miles (190 km) west where monitors at Wasaga Beach, Ontario, observed her. Then, for an unknown reason, she returned to Presq’ile Provincial Park on 5/12 and 5/13.
Four days later, by 5/17, she had traveled 420 miles (675 km) back to Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. She was first spotted by monitors on North Manitou Island, only 25 miles (40 km) as the plover flies from her usual nesting spot. By the next day she had found her way back to her old summer home at the mouth of the Platte River in Sleeping Bear Dunes, and was seen hanging out with her old mate BO:X,g.
I wish I could say it was a happy ending to the story, however on 5/19 she was gone, never to be seen again. She was very likely captured by the Merlin who was hunting the area at that time.
(BO:X,g attracted a one-year-old captive-reared female and raised chicks with her.)
Thank you to all the monitors whose detailed observations and diligent reporting have made it possible to piece together this story of Of,GL:X,Y's spring travels.
The fastest migration we've documented so far is that of Of,GG:X,Y.
This female was documented at the mouth of the Platte River in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI at 10:15 on July 22, 2013. On the morning of July 24 at 6:15 she was photographed at Crandon Park near Miami, FL. If she left immediately after being seen on 7/22 and arrived just before being photographed on 7/24 and flew a straight line to her destination she would have had to average 31 MPH.
Ob:X,b - Rocky
Rocky first made a name for himself in 2006 on North Manitou Island. It had been noticed that there were two well-developed scrapes in the area of his nest – one with eggs in it, one without. Since it was his first nesting attempt he had not yet received his unique adult color-band combination. When we arrived to capture and band him his mate was incubating so we settled in to wait and prepare to band him. We chose and readied the bands that would identify him for the rest of his life and aligned our spotting scopes on the nest then sat down to watch and wait. After a long wait Rocky finally returned to take his turn. When Mark walked to the nest to set the banding trap, he made an interesting discovery. Rocky wasn’t sitting on the nest! He was incubating some rocks in the second scrape. We thought it must have been an accident so Mark smoothed out the extra scrape and set the trap over the nest, and then he moved away from the nest and out of sight. Rocky returned immediately to the nest area, paid no attention to the trap, made a new scrape in the same location as his previous one and settled down to incubate. Mark approached the nest area once more and moved the trap to Rocky’s scrape. As soon as Mark moved away Rocky returned and was trapped on his empty scrape. At this time he got his adult bands: orange over light blue on the left leg and aluminum over light blue on the right.
We then began watching Rocky and his mate more closely. They took turns incubating in the usual way but she sat on the nest with four-eggs and he took his turn on his own “nest” incubating a few egg-sized rocks. Ten days after their due date, when the eggs still hadn’t hatched, they were collected and brought to the University of Michigan Biological station. Someone asked for an egg-candling demonstration and it was discovered that 3 of the chicks were still alive! The Captive-rearing zookeepers helped the chicks to make it out of their shells. Two didn’t have enough yolk sac left and died, but one survived.
The next year Rocky was back with a new mate. I found his mate incubating and watched for a nest exchange. To my joy Rocky sat on the same location his mate had left. When I checked to see how many eggs they had, I discovered that they were incubating three eggs and a rock!
His mate laid another egg; he added another rock and they incubated steadily until the chicks hatched. Once the chicks hatched he left his rocks behind and never again incubated rocks.
After a “rocky” start he became one of the most successful males, shuttling back and forth between his North Manitou Island summer home and his winter territory at Crandon Park near Miami, Florida and fledging many chicks. He was last seen 3/26/2014 at Kiawah Island, South Carolina along his way north.
Of,YG:X,G - aka Packer Boy
Our successful male plover known as Packer Boy hatched in 2006 on North Manitou Island in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. He is the son of LO:X,Y and X,Y:O,b.
Packer Boy first showed his true colors as a super dad in 2008 at 5th Avenue Beach in Manistee, MI. In May of 2008, there was news that a plover pair was spotted and breeding behavior was seen at the 5th Avenue Beach. Stephanie Schubel and Kelsey Hunt from the Great Lakes Banding Crew went to the beach to further investigate and lo and behold a Piping Plover pair was spotted. Upon further observation in the beautiful cobble area of the beach, the male plover became very, vocal and defensive. Stephanie and Kelsey patiently waited and inspected from a safe distance, and suddenly noticed that the male plover was standing protectively over a 1 egg nest. After a full clutch of four eggs was laid, the banding crew returned and banded this fierce father with a pattern of green and yellow bands. His band combo was chosen by a local Manistee Forest Service employee who was a Green Bay Packers fan. Thus, started the story of Packer Boy.
He is fondly loved by many in the Manistee area and around the Great Lakes Piping Plover region. He is often one of the first plovers to return to the breeding grounds and start a nest in the spring. In all but 1 of the 10 years he has been breeding he has fledged 3 or 4 chicks. That is truly an amazing feat under any circumstances, but the 5th Avenue Beach is a busy beach with people, dogs, and gulls! Packer Boy has some great parenting skills and good genes. We are lucky to have him in our population and thankful to all those who help protect and keep watch over him, his mate and his chicks every year.
A mystery about Packer Boy's life is where he spends his winters. He has never yet been reported away from his Manistee summer territory. Where does he go?
UPDATE WINTER 2018-19: Packer Boy was seen twice in August at Padre Island, Texas. Perhaps he was headed farther south into Mexico.
UPDATE SUMMER 2019: There were no further reports of Packer Boy until he returned north in spring. He was seen at his usual nesting location in Manistee then disappeared. Given his advanced age, 13 years old, we feared the worst. However in July he turned up on a beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes and probably had a secret nesting spot on some secluded beach near Manistee.
Of,-:X,Vb - aka Violet
Violet (nicknamed for being the first Great Lakes Piping Plover to receive a violet-colored band) hatched in 2016 at the mouth of Platte River in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Benzie county, MI. She and two siblings fledged from that nest and she headed south with her sister to winter together in northern Florida near the Georgia border. It’s quite unusual for siblings to stay together.
In the spring of 2017 both Violet and her sister returned to Sleeping Bear Dunes -- Violet to her hatch-place at the mouth of the Platte River and her sister to South Manitou Island. Violet’s first nesting attempts were unsuccessful. She and her mate started two nests too close to the shore. Both were washed out by waves after she laid only one or two eggs. After this disappointing summer she headed back south to Florida, stopping over in Beaufort County, SC from August until October.
Along the way south Violet got some fiber wrapped around her left foot. It was quite tight and cut off circulation to her toes. Monitors in Florida noticed her injury and contacted the necessary authorities with proper training to attempt to catch her and remove the fiber. They made several unsuccessful attempts. The next time they saw her it was too late. She had lost her toes. During the winter of 2017-18 she also lost her sister.
In the spring of 2018 she returned to Sleeping Bear Dunes but chose her nesting location more wisely. She nested near Glen Haven and, with her mate, successfully raised and fledged two of their four chicks (above average for Piping Plovers). She was re-banded at this time with the unique combination of band colors that will identify her for the rest of her life.
Like most Piping Plover females she left her nesting territory in July and, as is usual for her, spent the late summer and fall in Beaufort County, SC before heading back to northern Florida for the rest of the winter.
Spring 2019 brought her back to Sleeping Bear Dunes, another new mate and a slightly different territory. Her 2019 mate was an old guy…at least 13 years old… and he vanished not long after their three chicks hatched. It’s thought that he was caught by a predator...likely a Merlin. One chick disappeared immediately after hatching and another disappeared at the same time as its dad. Violet was very protective of the one remaining chick. It survived and last we heard was doing well on August 8th in Dare county, NC.
It's August 2019 and Violet is once again hanging out in Beaufort County, SC along her way south. Aside from a slightly off-kilter gait and very distinctive tracks she seems little-hampered by her lost toes.
Update April 2020: Violet wasn't reported at all for the rest of the winter. We feared she was gone, but 4/20/2020 she turned up in Waukegan, IL. She stayed there a few days before continuing her journey.
On 4/25 she found her way back to where she successfully nested in 2018 and 2019. As of 4/27 she seems to have found a mate and is settling down for another summer.
Update summer 2020: Violet had another successful nesting season and was joined by her daughter from 2019...now Of,bb:X,V (baby violet), who had a nest nearby.
O,b:X,- (b300) - aka Nubbins
This fellow hatched in 2017 at Dimmick’s Point on North Manitou Island. His brood and the neighboring brood hatched the same day and merged together soon after hatching, switching back and forth between the two sets of parents. When we banded them, we had no way to tell which chicks belonged to which adults, so we don’t know which pair are his parents.
He headed south to Cumberland Island in late July and spent the fall there, disappearing to unknown territories during October. We feared he was gone, but he returned north in the spring of 2018 to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and found a nice area near Sleeping Bear Point to establish a territory. Unfortunately, several other males and a pair of Killdeer also liked that location and major battles ensued.
On the morning of May 15, the monitor on duty reported that his right leg was injured, quite likely in a fight. He wasn’t using it and it hung loosely down even in flight. He continued to feed in the area and spent time sitting near incubating plovers but didn’t find a mate or have a territory.
On June 20th his injured foot fell off about ½” below the tibio-tarsal joint. He continued to feed at Sleeping Bear Point until July 6th when he headed south. He was reported from the panhandle of Florida on July 18th and had made his way back to his fall territory at Cumberland Island National Seashore by July 26th, where Pat and Doris Leary reported him regularly through October, then he disappeared. It’s unusual for a Piping Plover to move to a new territory after settling in during the fall.
In the spring of 2019, he arrived back at Sleeping Bear Dunes, found an uncontested territory up on the high dune plateau and attracted a mate. Together they began nesting. His mate laid four eggs and they incubated them faithfully. Males with missing feet often have difficulty mating and we wondered throughout the incubation period whether the eggs would be fertile. Amazingly he had managed to fertilize one of their four eggs. The lone chick was the only one from three broods who survived the harsh conditions far above the shoreline. Just before fledging it made its way down the steep bluff to Lake Michigan and headed south ending up at Cumberland Island National Seashore, where its dad also spent the fall.
A view of the dune plateau, high above Lake Michigan, where Nubbins nested in 2019
Where has Nubbins been spending his winters?
On January 6th monitors at Isla Holbox on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico saw and photographed him. Has he been making that long circuitous trip from Michigan to Georgia to the Yucatan each year? There's so much to learn about the lives of Piping Plovers.
Thank you to Pat and Doris Leary, Eduardo Pacheco Cetina, Barbara MacKinnon de Montes, the monitors at Sleeping Bear Dunes and others who have made piecing together this much of Nubbins’ story possible.
Ms Green Dots a.k.a. YYV (Eve)
Ms Green Dots (nicknamed for the green dots on her orange band) hatched in 2015 at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI. She and her dad were found on the shoreline below the Sleeping Bear Dune Plateau before she was able to fly. The nest was never discovered and is presumed to have been located on top of the high dune plateau somewhere in the many acres of cobble there.
In July she headed south and found a suitable territory for the winter in Florida near Miami. She has returned there every year.
In 2016, she chose Sauble Beach, Ontario as a nesting site and paired with “Mr. Lonely”, a male who spent the whole summer of 2015 at Sauble Beach without finding a female friend. Lonely and Green Dots soon had four eggs, but part way through the 28-day incubation he fell victim to an overnight predator!
Ms Green Dots at Sauble Beach, Ontario
Her nesting instinct prevailed, and Green Dots soon hooked up with "Port Boy", a male who had nested at Port Elgin in 2014, but had also been unable to find a female at Sauble Beach in 2015, or as yet in 2016. They nested, but Port Boy was also predated! So Green Dots, at only 1 year old, had already lost two mates and two nests.
Blue Bands at Sauble Beach
In 2017, Green Dots returned to Sauble Beach and paired up with 2-year-old “Mr Blue Bands” (nicknamed for the blue bands on his lower legs). Blue Bands, who hatched at Sauble Beach in 2015, was a deadbeat dad…as many plovers are in their first nesting attempt. He did not like incubating! He would frequently get off the eggs while on duty and run about picking up shells, pebbles or grasses, and flip them around! He would stand on the eggs! Once, volunteers saw that he had somehow knocked an egg right out of the nest cup as he was squirming around! However, he bumped it back into the nest before Green Dots was any the wiser!! But despite all this the four eggs hatched and all four chicks fledged – quite a ploverly accomplishment!
Blue Bands above, Ms Green Dots below
In 2018, their plover ‘love story’ continued! Green Dots and Blue Bands arrived back at Sauble. Blue Bands now had become a very attentive dad, and they fledged two chicks.
In 2019, the love birds returned to Sauble Beach after a winter apart. They laid and hatched four eggs, lost two chicks, and fledged the other two.
The damaged exclosure after Tropical Storm Cristobal
By 2020, the world had changed and so had Sauble Beach. The global pandemic caused the town to close the beach for much of the breeding season. Virtually no beach surveys could take place. We know Blue Bands returned, but Green Dots ventured further abroad. She returned to her old home at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan and found a territory on North Manitou Island where she paired with another inexperienced male, Y324. They had laid three eggs and were due to lay a fourth on June 9th as Tropical Storm Cristobal approached. It was decided to take the eggs, and four from a neighboring nest into an incubator until after the storm passed. If the nest was undamaged the eggs would be returned. Unfortunately, Cristobal proved much stronger than expected and the nest was not only buried in sand, but the exclosure was ripped up and folded in half by the waves.
YYV on North Manitou Island
Green Dots and Y324 began a new nest right away in a much safer location behind the dune nearby where she laid four more eggs. Once again she was in the position of working with a male who didn’t like incubating and a very late nesting attempt. Y324 much preferred hanging out on the beach and letting Ms Green Dots, (now re-banded with a unique pattern of band colors and nicknamed YYV (Eve) for her bands…Yellow, Yellow, Violet) spend all her time on the nest.
YYV in Florida winter 2020-21
YYV's Captive Reared Offspring
The first clutch of eggs hatched and were successfully reared in captivity. All three survived, were released and all made to wintering territories. The second nest was very late and YYV gave up on incubating alone just before the eggs hatched.
YYV has spent another winter at Crandon Park near Miami and interestingly one of her captive-reared offspring, who she never before met, has joined her there.
Update: 4/7 - 4/17 YYV has been reported on Seabrook Island, SC!
Check back to find out where she decides to nest in 2021...
“LLiB” (Nickname derived from her band combination: Of,LL:X,B) – 11 years old in 2021
LLiB as a chick at Platte Point in Sleeping Bear Dunes
“LLiB” hatched in 2010 near the mouth of the Platte River in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. She is the daughter of BO:X,g…the longest-living plover known in the Great Lakes population. Her mother was LX:OL, his long-time mate.
She first nested at Manistee, MI in 2011 (She was a neighbor of “Packer Boy”) but didn’t fledge any chicks that summer.
In 2012 she paired with BLY (Of,BL:X,Y) and began breeding on North Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and hatched four chicks. Unfortunately, all four (and also ten neighboring chicks) were eaten by a flock of crows within a few days of hatching.
LLiB on North Manitou Island
She returned in 2013, paired with BLY again and this year they had better luck. Three of their four chicks fledged, (began flying). A neighbor chick joined their brood, and although it was older and bigger than their chicks, they welcomed it into their family.
LLiB and BLY were back together again in 2014. Their first nest washed out and none of the eggs could be found. They renested, but still in a flood-prone area. This second nest was also flooded during a storm in July. I was on duty, and after a long search was able to find all four eggs. It was decided that I should replace them in the nest. A week later four chicks hatched, and a month after that all four fledged. However, for years LLiB seemed to blame me for having messed with her eggs! (It’s hard to think you were being a hero but be treated like a villain.)
LLiB's North Manitou Mates. L to R: BLY, LOXY and GOXL.
LLiB spent one more year paired with BLY; then one year with LOXY, and three years with GOXL. She has outlived many mates and fledged a total of 21 chicks.
2020 was a rough year for LLiB and most Great Lakes Piping Plovers. High water levels in the Great Lakes as well as a huge storm surge from Tropical Storm Cristobal just days before many eggs were due to hatch caused a lot of loss. Although her nest was far from the shoreline and in a good location it washed out nonetheless.
LLiB's nest on a ridge between two ponds.
Note the high water line of grasses caught in the exclosure during Tropical Storm Cristobal.
Each fall and spring along her way to and from her winter territory on Marco Island, Florida, LLiB spends time on islands along the coast of Georgia. Her somewhat indirect migration route, as well as her long life, means she has traveled a great distance over the years…well over 29,000 miles…and she still seems to be going strong. (The earth’s circumference is 24,901 miles.)
We are expecting to see her back on North Manitou Island soon! She arrived on Cumberland Island, Georgia along her way north on 3/31 and was still there as of 4/6. Check back for updates about her life this summer.
LLiB on Marco Island, FL. Photo by Jean Hall
Watch for more stories to be added....