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Reflecting on a Manitou solitaire with the endangered piping plovers

Article by Scott Mills published in The Glen Arbor Sun

Back in early July, on a windy Sunday, I woke before sunrise at the southern end of North Manitou Island and headed out onto the beach for the day’s work. There at Dimmick’s Point, a broad wing of dunes and wave-turned stones reaching out into the Manitou Passage, we find the largest nesting concentration of Great Lakes piping plovers in the world.

Roughly a quarter of the population nests on the island, with another quarter nesting just across the passage. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is home to nearly half the breeding pairs of this endangered shorebird. At Dimmick’s Point, four days a week during nesting season from May to August, I walk the beach and monitor the plover activity. The point is closed to park visitors during that time, so I am typically the only human among the birds.

It is a great privilege to stay at Dimmick’s Point — ask anyone who has worked as a plover monitor there. It is a privilege (literally private law) to be the only human allowed, to wake with the sun and walk the shore with the birds. Each morning I encounter only my own footprints from the day before layered with wild tracks. Killdeer warns and scolds, as if by name. I step around new sprouts of Pitcher’s thistle and shelter in the lee of a cottonwood at lunchtime. When I look out at the point from under the brim of my hat, the point looks back.

Great Lakes piping plovers nest only on wide Great Lakes beaches or in cobble pannes behind the first line of dunes. They share habitat with sandpiper, killdeer, coreopsis, gull and tern, toad, rush, merlin and merganser — and innumerable wild and wonderful others. Their coastal habitat (habitat, from the Latin for residence, home) happens also to be in high demand for resort development and summertime recreation, an incidental and growing appetite of our culture that has driven the plovers, and some of their cohabitants, to the brink of extinction or extirpation. In 1990, there were only 12 breeding pairs of Great Lakes piping plovers left. As of this year there are 72. The numbers ebb and flow, but trend decisively upward, and the efforts of hundreds of monitors and biologists and volunteers are paying off.

When we protect the coastal dune habitat — simply give these fellow creatures some space to be — we enrich our own. Wealth, we might remember, is plenitude, fullness — there is perhaps no greater wealth than wildness close by. The poet Gary Snyder calls such pockets of intact habitat shrines, “the last little places where intrinsic nature totally wails, blooms, nests, glints away.”

On the shoreline and among the dunes, plover nesting season follows an arc from early spring through to high summer, along which we monitors do our best to keep up. In mid-April the male plovers begin to return to the Great Lakes from their wintering grounds and establish nesting territories, working tirelessly to defend their chosen half-acre or so of beach and swale against neighboring plovers. When the females return a few weeks later, they survey the scene and choose a mate for the season. Courtship and copulation ensues, which is our cue as monitors to begin looking for signs of nests.

A piping plover nest is a wonder of camouflage and obscurity. It consists of a shallow dish in sand the size of a cupped hand lined with white pebbles — each nest is a secret altar, we might suppose, in the shrine. The eggs (there are typically four) are light gray-green and patterned to resemble speckled stones. Standing even just a stride from a nest in the cobble, the eggs disappear between glances; they are impeccably hidden.

To find a nest, then, takes some attention and practice. I don’t strike out searching manually, which would be both daunting and risky — there is some 40 acres of prime habitat at Dimmick’s Point alone, and it would be all too easy to accidentally step on a nest. Instead, I stake out on a nearby dune and watch. The birds’ behavior will always lead me to the nest given enough time. They forage at the shore, chase neighboring plovers away, nap in the sun, but sooner or later they will rise and run quick and sneaky up into the cobble to the nest. A plover settling on a clutch of eggs does a little shimmy and bobs its head — an exhilarating moment for a patient plover monitor. Once found, I will build a small barrier around the nest called an exclosure, which allows plovers to pass easily in and out but prevents most predators from eating the eggs. You may have spotted exclosures along the beach at Sleeping Bear Point or Platte Bay.

By June, as Pitcher’s thistle just begins to bloom on the dunes, most of the plover nests are established and the adults are incubating the eggs around the clock. Both parents share duties, trading every few hours without fanfare. The relative calm of incubation season is a respite for monitors before the eggs begin to hatch and the challenging work of counting chicks begins.

If plover nests are impeccably hidden, then plover chicks are all but invisible in the cobble and vegetation. Accounting for each individual chick takes some doing. Again, I stake out on a nearby dune with binoculars and spotting scope and wait for movement in the cobble. The chicks appear, when they do, as a darting stone among stones, a fuzzy lightness amid mineral density. With practice they jump out against the background in a way that would be familiar to any studious forager of morels. This year, at the peak of the season in early July, there were 48 chicks (in addition to the 32 adults) to find each day at the point. A day’s work in July lasts from sunrise to dinnertime.

When the chicks are between five and 16 days old, a team of us (duly trained and permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) places bands on their legs, which identify each as a unique individual. Each chick will wear these bands until it returns to nest the following year, when we replace them with adult bands that they will wear for life. Bands allow a monitor or biologist to determine where a bird is from, where it has nested each year, who its mates have been, its ancestry stretching back to the late-1980s and, importantly, where it spends the winter. Bands on Great Lakes piping plovers have made possible the protection of much critical Atlantic shoreline habitat — for piping plovers and innumerable other species — from North Carolina to the Gulf Coast.

After another few weeks of foraging, the chicks begin to take their first flights. The adults fly south one by one, and by mid-August the fledglings have followed. The shoreline at the point feels lonely and eerily quiet without the plovers. Our friends have left for three seasons and the work of the monitor is complete for the year.

The work is immensely gratifying. And, as such, there is a paradox that inheres. Up close, monitors know these birds as individuals. We hold them briefly in the hands at banding, do a slow dance along the shore to pass one another without alarm; we celebrate when their eggs hatch and the chicks take first flight, mourn when they die. We say goodbye high summer until the following spring. But they are wild, too. The paradox is one between closeness and wildness. Those things we claim to hold just as soon wriggle between the fingers and fly away.

If we are to see the Great Lakes population of piping plovers continue to recover, along with that of their beleaguered cohabitants — to see our collective habitat, home, begin to swing back toward fullness — we must acknowledge and puzzle with this paradox. We must learn to understand these creatures as simultaneously entwined with human activity and possessing an inherent, unruly freedom. Then we can honor them not simply as numbers in a population but as individuals, as wild neighbors, even as kin. And recognize that their flourishing is our flourishing. We share this shrine, after all.

Here, approaching the end of August, a new season has come to Dimmick’s Point. Migrating shorebirds stop to rest on their way south from the Arctic, sand cherries ripen to burgundy among the dunes and the last Pitcher’s thistle blooms go to seed and rise into the air. Waves break at shore and cottonwood leaves rattle dry in the wind. I say my goodbyes until the plovers return next spring.


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