Several years ago, I was out monitoring piping plovers on North Manitou Island in Lake Michigan, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It was in mid-July and the piping plover breeding season was in its final stages. Most of the chicks had hatched weeks earlier and were getting ready to fledge, that is gain the ability to fly and thus become independent from their parents. There were about 20 pairs on North Manitou that year so it seemed like there were plovers everywhere. Chicks from different broods were moving all around the point; some were flying, some running, and some hiding. With 40ish breeding adults, another 10-15 non-breeding adults and over 50 chicks, there were over 100 piping plovers in a relatively small area. It was a full time job just trying to verify all the band combinations and trying to verify which chicks had fledged and which ones had not. Plover calls rang out all around the point. It was beautiful chaos.
Such a scene was simply unthinkable only a short time ago. By 1985 the Great Lakes piping plover was on the very brink of extinction. Driven from beach after beach by a host of issues, only 17 pairs remained in the entire Great Lakes basin. In 1985 and 1986 the Great Lakes piping plover was placed on the Endangered Species List. The last bastion of hope for many imperiled plants and animals. With so few birds remaining, prospects were looking pretty dim. However with the protections of the act and the increased interest and funding that come with it, a wide variety of partners set out to see what could be done. Conservation work that had started pre-listing was amplified. Federal and State Agency biologists, University researchers, non-profit conservationists, volunteers and shoreline landowners fanned out across the Great Lakes basin looking for plovers. Nesting exclosures were placed on all the plover nests and plover monitors stayed to watch over them. Sections of beach were closed to give the plovers room to raise their chicks. Abandoned eggs were taken into captivity where researchers and zookeepers learned the best way to incubate and raise them and release them back into the wild. In other words, one of the most intensive endangered species recovery programs of all began take shape.
As these recovery efforts continued, slowly but surely the Great Lakes piping plover population began to rebound. After being under 20 pairs for decades, the population rose above 20 pairs in 1995, 30 pairs in 1999, and then quickly rose above 50 pairs in 2002. The population reached 70 pairs in 2009 but then dropped rapidly in 2010 and 2011, falling to 55 pairs. In recent years, funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has helped biologists increase the intensity of conservation efforts. This has helped combat the rising threats from predators, as well as ease some of the pressure from growing human visitation at many plover nesting beaches. The population rebounded once again and then stabilized, with an average population size over the last 5 years of 73 pairs, nearing the halfway mark of the 150 pair goal that is part of the species’ Recovery Plan. In 2017, the population reached a record high since listing of 76 pairs.
While increasing population levels and better productivity are important recovery milestones, the most exciting development for the Great Lakes piping plover population over the past few years has been range expansion. After the low point in the 1980s, plovers slowly began to recolonize former breeding locations. In 2007, they started breeding again at locations on the Lake Huron coast in Ontario. For most of the next decade, the range stayed about the same, with most nesting occurring in northern Michigan and a handful of sites in Wisconsin and Ontario. In 2016 that began to change, as locations were recolonized in Michigan and Wisconsin thanks to habitat restoration efforts. That year also saw nesting expand to Lake Ontario with several new sites in the Province of Ontario and two sites in New York. Two pairs of plovers also bred in Illinois. The biggest milestone of all occurred in 2017 when two pairs nested at Presque Isle State Park in Pennsylvania. This was the first time the birds had nested on the shores of Lake Erie since 1977 and with those nests; it was the first time piping plovers were breeding on the shores of all five Great Lakes since 1955. This success was sustained in 2018 with piping plovers once again nesting along all five Great Lakes in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario. Much remains to be done and the plovers are not out of danger yet, but the ringing peep-lo of the piping plover can be heard on all of our Great Lakes once more.
Happy Endangered Species Day! - Vince Cavalieri, Great Lakes Piping Plover Coordinator