Endangered bird restoration efforts net record year
CMU students, faculty contribute to piping plover recovery
It was a great summer for the piping plover, thanks to decades of wide-ranging, multi-agency recovery effort to which Central Michigan University students and faculty have contributed.
Across the Great Lakes, 80 breeding pairs produced as many as 134 chicks from 85 nests. It’s the highest number of breeding pairs since 1984, said Derek Hartline, a CMU graduate student employed as a conservation officer for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
Hartline helped monitor the progress of seven of those nests on High Island, located just west of Beaver Island in the Beaver Island Archipelago. That’s more than double the three nests recorded on the island in 2021. In 2020, there was just one nest.
“High Island just became a hot spot this year,” he said. Much of the credit goes to the careful implementation of a region-wide recovery plan by many different organizations. He got his job with one of them – the tribe – while conducting coastal monitoring through the lab of biology faculty Donald Uzarski.
Six of those nests produced what could be a total of 19 viable chicks. Seventeen of them have already developed flying feathers, Hartline said. On High Island, two chicks are nearing this stage and could get their flying feathers by the end of the month, bringing the total of born and raised in the wild to nine.
The others needed help, Hartline said. A falcon killed adults in three nests, leaving 12 eggs unattended. The eggs were later transported to a facility in Pellston, where 10 hatched into chicks. All survived.
The birds have since been released into the wild, with most being released in Michigan, while four were taken to New York.
CMU infrastructure plays a role
Nancy Seefelt, a faculty member in CMU’s biology department, visited High Island in May during the Beaver Island Birding Festival. Nesting plovers were previously spotted by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
Seefelt has spent more than 20 years monitoring plovers in the archipelago. Initially, she was researching other water birds at the CMU Biological Station on Beaver Island when she had an opportunity to help with the plover recovery. The station had boats that proved valuable for keeping an eye on local plovers on the other islands.
High Island isn’t always a hot spot for plovers, she said. In fact, some years no plovers nest there.
It’s not always easy to predict where plovers will nest because of changing lake levels, she said. Piping plovers prefer camouflage to cover provided by plants.
The natural coloration of the plovers helps them blend into the sand and rocks of beaches to conceal them from predators, said Benjamin VanDyke, whose master’s thesis looked at the role managing vegetation could play in plover recovery.
Piping plovers do as well on beaches where vegetation is managed as they do in places where it’s left alone. That could mean that non-native plant management could take place without disrupting plover recovery, he said.
Camouflaged for safety
“They are really designed to blend into that sandy substrate,” VanDyke said. VanDyke graduated from CMU with his master’s in biology in May and now works as the preserve and volunteer steward for The Little Forks Conservancy in Midland. Seefelt was his adviser.
This characteristic leaves piping plovers exposed to the summer sun without cover, making it a survivor.
“They take to these harsh environments and thrive there,” he said.
That ability to conceal themselves could have helped this year’s population on High Island.
Part of the recovery plan is to place enclosures on top of plover nests, Hartline said. The falcon that killed the three High Island plovers appeared to have investigated the enclosures that Hartline’s team put on top of their nests before killing the birds.
Once they removed the enclosures, the predation stopped.
High Island’s plovers have already started their southward migration for the winter, Hartline said. The females left first, followed by the males as soon as the chicks develop flying feathers.
The chicks – both raised in the wild and at the Pellston facility – were banded, enabling tracking of their winter whereabouts. One of the males who lived on Beaver Island appears to winter over in the Fort Lauderdale area, Hartline said.