by current graduate student Sarah Saunders
Piping Plover chick.
In 1986, there were only 30 Piping Plovers left on the beaches of the Great Lakes. Their population had plummeted due to human-caused disturbances to their nesting habitat and they were in severe danger of going extinct. These threats persist today, and include habitat alteration from shoreline residential development and invasive plants, which can reduce the amount of nesting habitat available to the birds. Increased recreational activities, such as walking too close to the nests or allowing dogs to chase adults and chicks have also caused increased mortality. Finally, human activities near nests can pose an additional threat if food scraps and garbage are left nearby, attracting predators to the nesting areas.
Piping Plovers nest on the dry, sandy areas of beaches next to the dunes from the beginning of May through the end of July. The majority of the Great Lakes population nests along Lake Michigan in Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. Their nests are shallow depressions in the ground, often lined with pebbles. Plover eggs are well-camouflaged, blending in with the sand and cobblestones on the beach.
Banding an adult to study population dynamics.
Today, the Great Lakes Piping Plover population has increased to approximately 120 individuals, but it is still small enough to be vulnerable to nesting disturbances increase in size can partially be attributed to population recovery procedures that have been implemented since the Piping Plover was listed in the Endangered Species Act in 1986. Nests are protected with a wire cage that allows adults to go in and out, but prevents most predators from accessing the eggs. Segments of beaches with nesting plovers are closed to human activity by ropes and signage at a 50-meter radius around each nest. This prevents people and their pets from accidentally trampling nests and chicks. Biologists monitor each nest frequently to determine breeding success and to identify potential threats to adult and chick survival. Additionally, each Piping Plover is given a combination of leg bands that allow biologists to study the population dynamics.
Sign we erect to protect nesting areas from human disturbance.
All of these efforts have greatly benefited the Great Lakes population. More eggs have hatched because of nest protection and more chicks have survived because of nesting area monitoring and closures. Although it can be discouraging to have restricted access to certain areas of the beach, these measures are not only effective in aiding plover conservation, but are also beneficial in maintaining the health of the beach ecosystem. By preserving areas of shoreline, erosion is prevented and other animals and plants that depend on a healthy dune habitat are able to survive and thrive. Therefore, partial beach closures allow us to enjoy the beach while allowing other creatures to live with reduced threats to their survival.
There are many ways beachgoers can further help in the Great Lakes Piping Plover population recovery. When you see a nest site, walk along the wet sand close to the water’s edge to minimize disturbing nesting adults. Remember to always keep dogs leashed when you are walking on the beach to prevent them from chasing adults and chicks. Clean up garbage left on the beach to prevent predators and scavengers from being attracted to nesting areas, endangering adults, chicks, and eggs. Do not operate vehicles, such as all-terrain vehicles, on beaches with nesting Piping Plovers because they can disturb adults, destroy nests, and damage nesting habitat. Report the location of any Piping Plover nests to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or a state park manager. Finally, notify a conservation officer if you see any people or pets disturbing plovers or their nests. The Great Lakes Piping Plover population needs to reach a size of approximately 300 individuals to be considered a healthy and stable population. With your help, we can achieve this goal.
About the author:
Sarah is pursuing her PhD studying Piping Plover breeding biology and conservation in Francie Cuthbert’s lab. She started work on the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Team last summer, where she spent time in northern Michigan helping band adults and chicks, monitor nests, and captive-rear chicks from abandoned eggs. This summer, she will continue to assist in these efforts as well as investigate her own research question concerning captive-reared fledgling survival.