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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A female piping plover spotted near Chequamegon Point. © Sumner W. Matteson
A female piping plover spotted near Chequamegon Point.

© Sumner W. Matteson

June 2008

Piping up for plovers

These rare birds need special attention.

Sumner W. Matteson


In the fall of 2006, I received an e-mail from a Mr. Rick Flood, seeking to help with an endangered species project for this daughter, Clara (11), and her friend, Jesse (then 10). both were home-schooled students from Cedarburg. The kids got the idea to do something to help the state- and federally-endangered piping plover, a small, inconspicuous, sand-colored shorebird with a partial or complete black band around its neck. The bird takes its name from its high-pitched, but meolodic voice.

What a nice surprise! When I was president of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology back in 2000, and for years before and since, members had lively discussions about how to get more young people involved in ornithological pursuits. How wonderful that these two had expressed such keen interest in a bird quite near and dear to my heart.

Piping plovers were hunted nearly to extinction for their eggs and feathers during the 19th century. With protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and later under the Endangered Species Act, the birds – through diligent conservation, management, and educational efforts – staged a strong comeback, culminating in a population resurgence during the 1990s.

Breeding piping plovers – now numbering several thousand rangewide – occur in three U.S. and Canadian regions: in the northern Great Plains from Alberta, Canada, south to Oklahoma; in the northern Great Lakes; and along the Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland to North Carolina. The Great Lakes population, however, has fewer than 80 breeding pairs with most of those in Michigan. Protection and monitoring of Great Lakes nest sites is of paramount importance to state and federal officials involved in piping plover conservation efforts.

Piping plovers are among Wisconsin's rarest breeding birds, numbering one to two pairs for decades, and reaching a record high of five nesting pairs – all in the Apostle Islands.

Spring migrants in Wisconsin arrive from the Gulf of Mexico during late April through late May, and nesting may occur from the third week of May to mid-June. Piping plovers prefer to breed on remote, wide sand beaches featuring patches of gravel with little or no vegetation. They typically lay four speckled, sand-colored eggs into a sand depression or scrape. Both adults take turns incubating the eggs for 25-31 days. The young are born precocial, meaning within hours they can leave the nest to explore the beach and the water's edge, usually staying fairly close to the parents as they learn to feed on invertebrates. The young can fly when they are about three to four weeks old. They may migrate south as early as mid-July and are gone from the state by late October.

In winter, most piping plovers frequent coastal beaches from the Carolinas to the Yucatan with some wandering to the Bahamas and the West Indies. We know for sure that some of our Wisconsin piping plovers have spent the winter along the southwestern coast of Florida because young that we banded in the Apostle Islands have been observed on beaches there. These birds are smarter than we think: After the record snowfall in southern Wisconsin this past winter, Florida's sand beaches are looking better and better!

During summer, sand beaches in Wisconsin are prime get-away spots for human visitors, too, and plovers and people aren't a very good fit, particularly people with dogs. Nesting piping plovers are easily disturbed but often undetected as the birds leaving their nests never let people get close. When this happens, the temporarily abandoned eggs are vulnerable to intense heat or cooling winds. Fortunately, because all of Wisconsin's piping plovers currently breed in the Apostle Islands area on or near National Park Service lands, birds and visitors can be monitored somewhat regularly, especially on Long Island and Chequamegon Point. U.S. Park Service staff in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources work as partners monitoring plovers with the nearby Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe and The Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy serves as a steward for a private landowner on Chequamegon Point.

Call in
If you see a marked (banded) or unmarked piping plover, please report your sighting to one or more of the following: National Park Service Ecologist, (715) 779-3398, Ext. 211 (if observed in the Apostle Islands); WDNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources, (608) 266-1571; or to the University of Minnesota's Great Lakes Waterbird Research Program, which recommends reporting color band combinations (if present), sighting location and date. Record color band combinations seen from top to bottom on the left leg and then the right leg. The colors used in banding piping plovers in the Great Lakes region: dark blue, light blue, black, dark green, light green, yellow, red and orange. A silver U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band is also used. Go to Great Lakes Waterbird Research Program for further information.

Disturbance of breeding areas is an ongoing threat to establishing a secure population. To raise awareness about the plight of the piping plover, Clara Flood and Jesse Tysinger decided to give public talks and set a goal of raising $300 for the species' conservation. The students contacted me to get presentation materials, and I e-mailed Mr. Flood a PowerPoint slide show I'd put together. "Use whatever you'd like," I told him. A few months later, I received word that Clara and Jesse had assembled their own PowerPoint presentation and established a nonprofit organization called Fundraiser for Endangered Species. With help from Mr. Flood, they opened an account at a local bank to receive donations. A February 2007 presentation to the Riveredge Bird Club in Ozaukee County netted $100.

"I told the club all about the bird's habitat and the invertebrates that they eat," said Jesse. "And I told them about people stepping on their nests and the danger of driving vehicles on the beach. They wanted to know more, and if the birds had always been endangered," added Clara Margaret.

What do we know historically about the piping plover in Wisconsin?

The first records of their breeding in the state came from naturalist Ludwig Kumlien, who reported in 1891 that he shot piping plover young at Lake Koshkonong in Jefferson County. No evidence exists, but Kumlien and ornithologist Ned Hollister, who penned the first book (in 1903) on Wisconsin birds, stated that piping plovers "formerly bred sparingly about Lake Koshkonong and near Sheboygan on the lake shore."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife shorebird biologist, Robert Russell, estimated that historically 75-95 piping plover pairs likely occupied the Wisconsin Great Lakes' shores. He felt there was sufficient nesting habitat to support that many pairs.

Other Wisconsin naturalists contributed information about the bird's distribution and occurrence. The first recorded piping plover nest in Wisconsin was observed in 1923 by ornithologists Herbert Stoddard and Clarence Jung south of Kenosha in an undisturbed beach/dune complex. Stoddard's field notes lamented that the Kenosha site "seems to be the only remaining breeding spot on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan, south of Green Bay. It is very doubtful whether this little colony will survive much longer, as the whole district is ripe for development, which indeed has already commenced."

Almost all 1,800 acres along the shoreline and a mile inland was slated to be developed as a model city; a "gold coast" development, subdivision and golf course. Luxury homes were built on high dunes and protective barriers of concrete and stone erected along the shore. The venture failed when the Depression hit, properties were purchased in 1947 and the area was renamed Carol Beach Estates.

Piping plovers also nested down the shore throughout an area five to six miles south of Kenosha. Plovers may have continued breeding in the area until about 1938 before development pressures and recreational use doomed its use by these reclusive birds.

There were other breeding records at scattered Lake Michigan haunts through the years: a 1931 record and a suggested record in 1937 from Kohler-Andrae State Park in Sheboygan County; a 1940 account in Oconto County of a brood on a dredge spoil island at the mouth of the Pensaukee River; and two breeding records from Door County in 1942 and 1948. In 2001, DNR Wildlife Manager John Huff and I located a nest at Seagull Bar in Marinette County – the first recorded pair nesting along the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan in more than 50 years. But breeding piping plovers have not returned to Seagull Bar.

Piping plovers nested intermittently from 1957-71 at Barker's Island in Douglas County until development and disturbance by off-road vehicles ended all nesting attempts. During the early 1970s, as many as six pairs of plovers nested on the Minnesota side of the harbor area. After 1977, the number of nesting plovers in the Duluth-Superior Harbor declined steadily for unknown reasons and were absent after 1986.

When I first started visiting the area back in 1974, Long Island was still a true island separated from Chequamegon Point by a narrow channel of water that I had to wade across. Lower lake levels and beach stabilization closed the gap in 1976, and the Long Island/Chequamegon Point area has been one long peninsula ever since. Ecologists classify it as a sand barrier spit: a really long, really narrow strip of land running parallel to the Lake Superior shore with a series of dune ridges and swales perched on bedrock. The area is continually shaped by sediment transported by lake currents and deposited by waves. Over the past 30 years, the beach-dune complex has changed due to vegetative succession, intense storms that battered the coast and changing water levels. Accordingly, locations of piping plover nests likely shifted as suitable habitat became available.

Piping plover nests were documented on these open sand-and-gravel beaches in 1974 and during 1978-1983, but none were recorded during 1983-98. Breeding pairs of these rare birds disappeared from the Duluth-Superior Harbor and the western shore of Lake Superior. Only 17 pairs were documented in the region – all in Michigan – and the Great Lakes population plummeted to only 11 breeding pairs by 1990.

Then, after a 15-year absence, a pair of piping plovers from Michigan returned to the Long Island/Chequamegon Point area in 1998. They scraped out a nest at the southern end of the island and four eggs were discovered on June 5th. A welded wire predator exclosure was installed over the nest and "no entry" signs were posted within a quarter mile of the nest. The pair successfully produced three young. Thanks to leg bands, we know these adult birds came from Wilderness State Park at the very northwestern tip of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

Why the sudden return? Most likely, Wisconsin benefited (and continues to benefit) from a fairly dramatic upturn during the late 1990s through 2002, when Michigan's piping plover population doubled to 50 nesting pairs. From 1995 through 2005, more than 600 young were produced by Michigan's breeding piping plovers.

Avian biologists and a new generation of piping plover enthusiasts scope out the rare bird from a distance at Long Island. ©Sumner W. Matteson
Avian biologists and a new generation of piping plover enthusiasts scope out the rare bird from a distance at Long Island.

© Sumner W. Matteson

Since 1998, National Park Service natural resources staff, directed by ecologist Julie Van Stappen and me, have been tracking piping plover presence and breeding pairs along the Wisconsin portion of Lake Superior. Usually no more than one to three pairs have been documented, but the last two years produced an upswing. In 2006, we found three nests along the shore and another on Outer Island of the Apostle Islands. In 2007, there were four nesting pairs on Long Island/Chequamegon Point, and a fifth on Outer Island. Almost all of these breeding birds originated from an area between Michigan's Beaver Island chain on the west and the Mackinac Straits to the east.

It was all as uplifting as the fundraising activities of the young piping plover enthusiasts Clara and Jesse. In May 2007, they wrote to give me an update. "Our goal was to raise $300," they said, "and look how well we did!" They had raised $540.85 – every penny to be used for piping plover monitoring and research. In recognition of their accomplishment, I made arrangements with Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service staff to ferry Clara and Jesse out to Long Island. Their dads asked if they could go, too, and last June, Julie Van Stappen commandeered one boat, and Fish and Wildlife Service Fisheries Biologist Glenn Miller brought another.

On the island, we met up with Josh Bray, a summer helper hired to monitor plover activities and to make area visitors aware of the endangered birds. Josh told us that nesting pairs and young were scattered here and there and we had a hit-or-miss chance of seeing them since the young had hatched. We walked down the beach to a vantage point and set up a high-powered spotting scope 250 to 400 meters away, since we didn't want to disturb them. At first, we had no luck. Then, finally, we saw one of the adults scurrying along the water's edge, foraging for invertebrates. Our good luck continued, and soon we spotted two young nearby.

"Cool!" exclaimed Clara. "Oh, nice!" echoed Jesse, as they scoped out the family group. We watched them a while, then, while walking back toward the boats, we observed an abandoned egg at one of the nests. Glenn Miller, a stout fellow with tree-trunk arms and the appearance of a friendly Visigoth, offered to hoist Clara and Jesse into the exclosure to retrieve the lone egg. "Wow! Really?" they said, their smiles widening.

Very carefully, as if holding the most fragile thing in the world, they brought the egg to me. I slowly took it from them and placed it into a secure container, which was later mailed to a Fish and Wildlife research facility for analysis of the egg. The day had been a great success, and Clara and Jesse, with dads in tow, returned to the mainland happy and proud that their unique conservation efforts had been justly rewarded. Later, I received a wonderful e-mail from Rick Flood thanking all involved for making the trip so special.

For Julie, Josh, Glenn, and myself, the trip was especially rewarding knowing that the future of piping plover conservation looked brighter, bolstered by the unbridled enthusiasm and dedication of Cedarburg's Clara Flood and Jesse Tysinger.

Sumner W. Matteson is an avian ecologist with DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources.