Something happened this year at Presque Isle State Park on Lake Erie that hasn’t happened in Pennsylvania since 1955. Not one, but two pair of endangered Great Lakes piping plovers has nested at Gull Point Natural Area in the park.
“We are overjoyed,” says Cathy Haffner, a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Haffner has been involved in Great Lakes piping recovery efforts since 2001. “Many have worked tirelessly for years to bring this bird back from the brink of extinction and it certainly is paying off,” she says.
Piping plovers are rare shorebirds with global population numbers at a little over 4,000 pairs, according to Partners in Flight. In the Great Lakes region the birds are listed as federally endangered and along the Atlantic coast and Great Plains they are listed as federally threatened.
LISTEN: Piping Plovers Nest in Pennsylvania for First Time in Sixty Years
The little, round birds are masters of camouflage. They hide in plain sight on beaches, blending right in with their sandy gray backs. But when they scamper down the beach, their bright orange legs, big-eyes, sharp black collar and distinct orange bill are on display. Plovers nest in soft sand away from the water’s edge. They look for wide beaches, open shorelines, driftwood, sparse vegetation, and a long distance to the treeline. That’s because to piping plovers, trees can mean predators.
This historic event at Presque Isle didn’t happen by accident. She says conservation efforts in other parts of the Great Lakes have steadily increased the bird’s population, and young male plovers, the explorers of the species, have been inching their range back to Lake Erie. And ever since a single, male bird landed there in the the early 2000s, the Game Commission and its partners have been actively making the Erie shore a place where the birds could once again have their chicks. She says when the piping plovers nested at Presque Isle this year, they were ready for them.
“One of the neat things about working with piping plovers is that our decisions can have a direct positive impact on the birds,” Haffner says.
For Haffner and her colleagues, that means keeping an eye out for nests and keeping people away. For the rest of us, she says it could be as simple as keeping dogs on leashes during walks along the beach.
WATCH: Cathy Haffner on the Job
An Entire Ecosystem
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and others have been working to remove a lot of invasive plants and young trees that had encroached on the plovers’ habitat.
“The native plant community, including several rare plants, benefited from treatment,” says Ephraim Zimmerman, a Western Pennsylvania Conservancy ecologist. “This story is not just about bringing back bird species to Pennsylvania, it’s also about restoring an entire unique ecosystem.”
One of the pair of piping plovers took flight from one of the Gull Point nests. The second nest was swept up by big waves, but the Game Commission rescued the eggs, and transferred them first to the Detroit Zoo and then to the University of Michigan Biological Station piping plover captive-rearing facility. The two chicks hatched and will be released on Lake Michigan in early August.
“It’s a great story of seeing an ecosystem recover,” Says Haffner. “It’s going to take continued management of that area to sustain that but the Game Commission and our partners are committed to making it work.”
Mary Birdsong (Yes, That’s Her Real Name)
The very person who discovered the plovers’ return to Presque Isle just so happens to be a contributor for The Allegheny Front’s Bird Files. Mary Birdsong is a shorebird monitor. She walks the beach in search of the plovers for a federal watch program. A few years ago she filed a story for our series, Bird Files.
NOTE: This story was originally published July 11, 2014.
The Piping Plover‘s melodious, “peep-lo” call gave this small, pale sandy-colored shorebird its scientific name—charadrius melodus. It’s a sound that still gets birders excited for the chase when they hear it, especially since it’s pretty rare in our region.
Plovers forage open beaches by skittering around quickly. They stop abruptly and poke their beaks quickly into the sand to catch a dinner of crustaceans or insects. On the Great Lakes, the Plover relies on thousands of newly-emerged midge flies. The hungry chicks begin feeding independently within hours of hatching.
Piping Plovers that appear in Erie have nested in Michigan, but birders keep hoping a pair will set up housekeeping on Pennsylvania beaches like they once did.
Because of shoreline development, the Great Lakes Piping Plover population was listed as endangered in 1985.
Since then, an intensive conservation effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, universities and volunteers have improved the nesting success of the Great Lakes Piping Plover. They’ve gone from 17 nesting pairs when they were listed almost 30 years ago, to 70 today.
As the Piping Plover nesting season is underway across North America, if you are on the beach, be on the lookout for a squat little bird with a single black band on its neck and a short stubby orange and black bill. And if you are lucky, you will hear its melodious call.
Bird calls from The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, recorded by George B. Reynard, Warren Y. Brockelman, and Dolly Minis.
Photo at top is of a male piping plover from the second nest at Presque Isle State Park. The colored legs bands indicate he hatched in 2016 at Darlington Provincial Park, Ontario. Young males are often the colonizers of new sites. Photo: Cathy Haffner / PGC Photo