Wisconsin plays a growing role in Great Lakes piping plover recovery

Nearly 100 chicks from Lake Superior site over last decade, first nest in Green Bay aid effort

MADISON – The successful nesting of piping plovers in Lower Green Bay for the first time in 75 years adds to Wisconsin’s growing contribution to the recovery of the federally endangered shorebird in the Great Lakes and reflects partnership efforts to improve the tiny bird’s nesting success.

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Piping plover
Photo Credit: Jack Bartholmai

In addition to the three chicks that fledged from Lower Green Bay this summer that were highlighted in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service news release (exit DNR), five other piping plover chicks fledged from Long Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (exit DNR) along Lake Superior. Those chicks are the latest to fledge from that site over the last decade, according to Sumner Matteson, a Department of Natural Resources avian ecologist who works on the multi-agency Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Partnership.

“Having chicks hatch and fledge from Lower Green Bay and add to the success we’ve seen over the past decade along Lake Superior is very rewarding,” says Matteson, who works for the DNR Natural Heritage Conservation program.

Any contribution of chicks is important because overall piping plover numbers in the Great Lakes region is still low and additional nesting sites are important to growing the population.

Video Credit: DNR

Over the last 10 years, a total of 94 piping plover chicks have been produced at Long Island as concerted restoration efforts by the National Park Service, Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, DNR, USFWS and The Nature Conservancy are paying off.

“This partnership between the agencies works really well,” says Lacey Hill Kastern, Bad River wildlife specialist. “Everyone has their roles and it is really paying off not only toward the recovery efforts of the Great Lakes piping plover population but also when it comes to education and outreach efforts in the local communities. There are a lot of locals in the area that look for updates every summer on how these little shorebirds are faring.”

Piping plovers once nested along the shores of all the Great Lakes but habitat loss, recreational pressure and predation and contaminants likely contributed to serious declines. Typically, piping plovers need large isolated beach and dune habitats for their nesting and chick rearing.

By 1948, only one pair of plovers was known to nest in Wisconsin and the piping plover was added to the state endangered species list in 1979. Across the Great Lakes region, the loss of habitat caused numbers to drop below 20 nesting pairs region-wide before the small shorebird was listed as federally endangered in 1986.

With help from federal, state and local partners, the number of breeding pairs in the Great Lakes has climbed to 75, about half-way toward the regional recovery goal of 150 breeding pairs, most of them in Michigan. Wisconsin has contributed up to six breeding pairs in recent years, with five breeding pairs in 2016.

At the Apostles Islands National Lakeshore, the National Park Service and Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa work together to protect piping plovers and their nesting habitat, says Julie Van Stappen, chief of planning and resource management at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. In recent years, the Bad River Band has overseen the plover monitoring effort.

Plover monitors are stationed on the island during the breeding season to keep track of how many breeding pairs are present and their nesting status, protect nesting areas from disturbance by people through visitor education, and place wire cages over the nests so the eggs are not eaten by predators like raccoons, coyotes and red fox, Van Stappen said.

Matteson leads efforts to place color-coded bands on the birds’ legs so that they can be tracked in coming years to learn more about their survival, their migration routes and their habitats.

Now that piping plovers have been documented successfully nesting at the Cat Island restoration site in Lower Green Bay, partners at that site have been working to protect the nests from predators and to band the chicks.

Steve Choy, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist involved in the project, says that nesting sites Wisconsin will become increasingly important as Great Lakes piping plovers continue on the path to recovery and young plovers search for new areas to nest.

“Birds that are nesting at established sites such as Long Island and new sites like Cat Island are contributing to the growth of the Great Lakes population. As well, other sites in Wisconsin that are suitable for nesting plovers are currently being sought out or managed and protected to accommodate this increase in numbers locally and across the Great Lakes,” Choy said.

Report sightings of banded piping plovers

The public can help piping plover recovery efforts by reporting their sightings of piping plovers with metal and color bands on their legs. The color codes vary according to the location where they were banded. By getting reports of the birds’ whereabouts, the recovery partners can better understand the birds’ migratory routes, the habitats they use, and their survivorship. For more information on piping plovers and how to report your sightings of banded piping plovers, go to the DNR website, dnr.wi.gov, and search “piping plover.”