Editor’s note: As of March 2023, the Department of Natural Resources reports 60 endangered and 60 threatened species in Michigan. This week, in honor of Earth Day, we will share the stories of some of these animals and the work being done to help save them.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A little bird that lives along the Lake Michigan shoreline is showing new signs of life thanks to the efforts from a team at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Forty years ago, the Great Lakes piping plover was on the brink of extinction. While the population has rebounded, the birds are still considered extremely vulnerable.
The Great Lakes piping plover is pocket-sized, growing to about 7 inches long with a wingspan that barely cracks a foot. The average adult weighs approximately 2 ounces, making for a delicious snack for lakeshore predators like birds of prey, snakes, raccoons and opossums.
Erica Adams, the piping plover program coordinator at the Sleeping Bear Dunes, says predators are not the bird’s primary threat. It’s habitat loss.
“One of the main reasons we have such high human-plover conflict is because the plovers nest directly on the beach, right where the people want to be. They want large, open, expansive beaches,” Adams told News 8.
As more and more shoreline was parceled away for development and recreation, the plover’s habitat has shrunk. The Sleeping Bear Dunes have become one of the few refuges for it, but even there, the birds need protection.
“Throughout the Great Lakes, we set up what we call psychological fencing. That’s so the plovers have a suitable area to forage and take refuge from visitors. We ask people to stay out of those areas,” Adams said.
She said it’s important that people follow the posted park rules and keep dogs out of parts of the park that are reserved for the plovers.
“Just by doing that simple measure of staying out of closed areas, not chasing birds, just being respectful while they are out on the beach goes a long way for us in making sure that the chicks and the adults are able to survive the season,” Adams said.
While dogs aren’t the piping plover’s typical predator, they can be enough to scare the bird away from its nest. Part of the reason why the population struggles so much is because when piping plovers feel threatened, they will abandon their nest, leaving their eggs exposed.
An abandoned nest is a major setback because Great Lakes piping plovers typically only lay one brood of four eggs each year. Adams says that if the birds are forced to abandon a nest early in the season, they may have a second brood, but those are often unsuccessful.
The good news is that the work being done by Adams’ staff and other groups around the region is helping the population recover.
In 1985, when the Great Lakes piping plover was added to the endangered species list, experts estimated there were between 12 and 17 nesting pairs left in the wild. Now, that number is up closer to 75. Last summer, Audubon Great Lakes reported that 150 chicks survived the fledgling process, the best breeding season on record.
Of the 150, 66 hatched at the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Another seven were rescued from abandoned nests on the dunes, raised in an incubator facility and released back into the wild once they have learned how to fly.
Because of the piping plover’s migration patterns, Adams expects a much busier summer at the Dunes.
“They have extremely high site fidelity, which basically means they go back to the same spot year after year,” Adams said. “We know this because of the bands on their legs, so we’re able to individually identify each one and we are able to track their locations.”
Adams says her team is always looking for volunteers to help in their efforts.
“It is a Michigan state law (to keep dogs on leashes in state parks). But here at Sleeping Bear specifically, we have a pretty low compliance rate for dogs both being in closed areas, which they are not allowed to be in, and being off leash,” Adams said. “So that’s part of our volunteer program that we have here at the park. They are called Bark Rangers. It’s a fun volunteer program that gets volunteers and their pets out on the beaches, walking, making educational context, spreading the word about what good pet policies are and telling people where they are able to take their dogs, because we do have plenty of beaches that people are able to take their dogs where plovers are not.”
She continued: “Even if your dog is super friendly and loves people and loves other dogs, the presence of a dog is going to register as a predator to the plover.”
Adams, who is starting her seventh summer with the piping plover program, is confident in the latest trends and efforts to save the birds.
“Our population is going up, so I’m really, really happy with where we are headed and where we are at right now,” Adams said. “I know our message is getting out to people. We are starting to see a shift in behaviors with visitors and especially the locals in the park. So, things are moving in a really good direction.”