The adorable shorebird everyone wants to save

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A baby piping plover. Credit: Benjamin Forbes

state of science icon

This article is part of The state of sciencea series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States.


July is coming to an end, and so is the Piping Plover’s nesting season. This is the watershed moment for these small, endangered shorebirds.

There are approximately 8,000 piping plovers worldwide. To put this into context, birders are often very excited to see a rare bird like a snowy owl. But there are about 28,000 snowy owls in the world, three times the number of piping plovers.

Since piping plovers nest along water and in the open, their chicks are very vulnerable to being gobbled up by predators. And one of the main reasons for their decline in numbers is human development along the beaches, lakes and rivers where piping plovers lay their eggs.

SciFri radio producer Shoshannah Buxbaum traveled to Fort Tilden in Queens, NY to report on a volunteer-run conservation effort along the New York coastline.

And later in the segment, Michigan radio reporter Lester Graham discusses with guest host Sophie Bushwick the unique challenges and triumphs of piping plovers that nest along the Great Lakes.


The following story, by Lester Graham, was originally published by Radio Michigan.

a small white and tan bird walking along the sand on a beach
A piping plover at Fisherman’s Island State Park near Charlevoix, Michigan. Piping Plovers have not nested at the site since 2004. Photo: Lester Graham/Michigan Radio

Newly hatched chicks of endangered birds roam a handful of beaches in the Great Lakes region. The population is recovering from near extinction, but is still highly dependent on human help.

These shorebirds don’t nest anywhere else but on a Great Lakes beach, a beach with lots of pebbles and rocks. Some of these birds nest on Lake Michigan beaches at the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Looking at a nest through binoculars, it doesn’t look like the male piping plover put much effort into building it, and that’s part of why it can be so vulnerable to disturbance.

a white man with a beard and glasses wearing a park uniform looks solemnly at the camera
Vince Cavalieri is a wildlife biologist at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. He is working with experts in the Great Lakes region to save the piping plovers population. Credit: Lester Graham/Michigan Radio

“Just sit on the sand and kick back and make a little depression in the sand. And this is where the female will lay her eggs. They then usually line the cup of the nest with shells or small pebbles. And that’s the entire nest,” said Vince Cavalieri, wildlife biologist at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

There aren’t many secluded beaches like this left. There has been an explosion of vacation homes and other developments along most of Michigan’s coastline. This means disruption for these sensitive birds.

“Habitat loss and recreational pressure are probably the two biggest remaining threats, but they are also threatened by predation. Many predator species, such as crows and raccoons, have increased in number with human changes to the environment,” Cavalieri said.

Another predator, the merlin, is on the rise after being nearly wiped out due to DDT contamination. It becomes a new threat to Piping Plovers.

Signs and rope barriers warn people, especially those with dogs, to keep their distance. If Piping Plovers feel threatened, they will abandon the nest.

a small plover stands on the sand.  the framing makes it look tiny compared to its surroundings
A young piping plover ventures out of the nesting area to scan the beach in search of food. Credit: Lester Graham/Michigan Radio

As Cavalieri spoke, three little piping plovers ran among the rocks. They looked like two twigs with a bit of fluff at the top.

This year promises to be good for Piping Plover breeding. As recently as 2020, there have been several failures. That year was one of the lowest chick survival rates since the piping plover was listed as endangered. The reason for this was the high water levels of the Great Lakes which flooded many sites that Piping Plovers use for nesting.

an older white woman wearing glasses, a pink shirt over a dress smiles at the camera
Francie Cuthbert is a professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota. She has worked to save Great Lakes Piping Plovers for decades. Credit: Lester Graham/Michigan Radio

Francie Cuthbert is a professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota. She has worked for decades to save the Great Lakes Piping Plover. She recently spoke in Michigan about the declining piping plover population, which by the mid-1980s was nearly wiped out. “There were only 12-17 pairs, so they were functionally extinct in the Great Lakes region, extinct as a population. The situation was therefore quite serious.

Since then, the population has increased to an average of 70 or more breeding pairs in recent years. This year, there are 74 breeding pairs.

To help protect the birds and monitor how they are doing while they nest, many people watch over them.

“It’s a great group effort between park staff, partners who work with us, and then a large group of volunteers who also help us keep an eye out for the birds,” said Erica Adams, Piping Plover Coordinator. at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Keeping an eye out for birds means several things. First, this means observing the number of eggs, watching to see if the parents are sticking around, and then counting the chicks. It also means keeping people and pets out of the restricted area.

a young white person wearing a national park service uniform smiles at the camera while holding binoculars on the beach
Erica Adams coordinates efforts to monitor Piping Plover nesting at Sleeping Bear Dunes. Credit: Lester Graham/Michigan Radio

And if anything happens to the piping plover’s parents, wildlife biologists save the eggs.

“We have a partnership with the Detroit Zoo and the University of Minnesota who will then take those eggs, place them in a captive breeding facility, complete the incubation period. The chicks hatch, then they are usually released into the park. They are able to go out and feed, learn to be a plover, and then they will eventually migrate. And we’re crossing our fingers that they’ll come back next year,” Adams said.

Further north, on the Michigan coast, another monitor lizard was still waiting for chicks.

Kailie Sjöblom was hired by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to monitor a male piping plover that usually nests near Muskegon. He did not appear this year. On average, piping plovers live about five years. This male was ten years old. The guess is that the old bird simply did not survive the migration to the breeding grounds.

a young white woman standing on the beach with water behind her wearing a national park t-shirt and a wide brimmed hat smiles at the camera
Erica Adams coordinates efforts to monitor Piping Plover nesting at Sleeping Bear Dunes. Credit: Lester Graham/Michigan Radio

Sjöblom was transferred to Fisherman’s Island State Park, near Charlevoix, to watch over a pair nesting there. It’s the first time there’s been a couple mating since 2004.

” They are very cute. They are small arched legs with pigeon fingers. Almost a bit like a little bulldog in a way, the way they scurry around the beach,” she laughed.

Sjöblom said she gets to know birds and their habits when she observes them every day. And she added that being on the beach day in and day out helped her see the bigger picture.

“For me, it’s not even so much about the bird. I really also see them as a physical embodiment that just sits in this little furry and feathery case that represents the health and integrity of the Great Lakes and a healthy ecosystem.

Most people walking on the beach have no idea that the little bird they see scurrying about is one of the last of its kind.

Over the weekend, Sjöblom reported that three of the four eggs had hatched.

Restoring the population to the 200 to 300 historic breeding pairs is still a long way off. And it is not at all clear how well the birds will manage without human help when and if the bird is no longer on the endangered species list.

Francie Cuthbert of the University of Minnesota said there are many challenges ahead, but she noted that the Great Lakes states are working together on these challenges and funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative will remain. in place for the foreseeable future, helping to keep Piping Plover monitoring in place.

“I really continue to hope that we can move forward in a positive way in the future.”


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