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Partnering for plovers and plants in northern Michigan

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Michigan Department of Natural Resources staff take a break after conducting plant surveys at Wilderness State Park From left: Dawn Marsh, Vince Cavalieri, Lisa Fischer, Hailey Reimann, Brittany Woodthorp, and Christie Deloria. Photo courtesy of Frances Whalen

Rare birds and plants in Michigan are benefiting from some team work among federal, state and local partners. This summer, staff from the Michigan Ecological Services Field Office and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources partnered with local volunteers to conduct plant surveys and describe beach characteristics at Wilderness State Park, located at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula. Part of an effort to restore the Great Lakes piping plover population, the surveyors examined vegetation encroachment in restored areas along with the regrowth of federally threatened Pitcher’s thistle and Houghton’s goldenrod. Staff spent two days surveying transects along the Lake Michigan shoreline throughout Waugoshance Point in Wilderness State Park. The information collected on plants and shoreline substrate (sand, silt and rock cover) will benefit future management of the site.

Piping plovers prefer wide, sand beaches strewn with small cobble and sparse vegetation for nesting habitat. In the early 2000s, Waugoshance Point had these habitat conditions and hosted up to 10 pairs of nesting piping plovers. Habitat quality, however, diminished after prolonged low Lake Michigan water levels and subsequent encroachment by native and non-native vegetation. The last year plovers nested at the site was in 2006. In 2012, we started a project with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey to restore plover habitat by redistributing sand and cobble and removing plants and trees in three areas along Waugoschance Point. The project was a success; in 2016, a pair of piping plovers nested at the site and successfully fledged chicks! In 2017, plovers were observed, but didn’t nest at the site.

This project is one of the first efforts to restore habitat for piping plovers. As with any good experiment, we wanted to monitor, learn and adapt. Once habitat was restored, we were unsure how long the conditions would remain favorable for nesting. We were also unsure how long to continue management to prepare the site for the greatest long-term success. To answer these questions, we set up a vegetation and substrate monitoring protocol. Preliminary data from the surveys indicate that restoration efforts were successful, with an increased amount of suitable nesting habitat for piping plovers. This year we noticed that non-native invasive plants recolonized some areas, especially at the end of Waugoschance Point where there was a heavy cover of two non-native plant species: yellow sweet clover and spotted knapweed. Management of the site during the next two years will focus on removing these species. Survey data will be further analyzed this winter to look for other trends and insights.

Lake Michigan water levels have been naturally changing and shaping the shoreline. Over the course of our project, Lake Michigan water levels have fluctuated from a near all-time low in 2012 to an almost record high this summer. This not only impacted monitoring efforts, as sections of our transects were submerged underwater, but changing water levels also affect plover nesting habitat. Lake level fluctuations and the shoreline processes that accompany them are the greatest creator and maintainer of plover habitat. The inundation observed this year means that shoreline areas were much narrower and less appealing to nesting plovers. When lake levels recede, however, wide beaches will return along with sparse vegetation conditions. These naturally produced conditions, along with the jump start provided by our project, could mean that Waugoshance Point will once again be prime piping plover nesting habitat.

This project is funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal and Threatened and Endangered Species Programs. Additional maintenance and monitoring work at Waugoshance Point will continue through 2019.

By Dawn Marsh and Christie Deloria Michigan Ecological Services Field Office

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