Endangered piping plovers nest again in Erie

From staff reports

ERIE — Sometimes success comes in threes.

For the third consecutive year, federally endangered piping plovers have nested, hatched and fledged chicks into the wild on Presque Isle State Park’s Gull Point, on the shores of Lake Erie.

But those four chicks fledged this year are en route to their wintering grounds that include East Coast states from North Carolina to Florida, which are in the path of Hurricane Dorian. Plovers also winter in the Bahamas, which were clobbered by the hurricane.

“We don’t know where these birds will winter,” observed Cathy Haffner, a Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist who has been involved in Great Lakes piping plover recovery efforts since 2001. “But we hope they stay clear of the hurricane, which would impose a great threat to these young plovers.

“If we’re lucky, we’ll learn from the army of volunteers who annually look for individually leg-banded piping plovers and other shorebirds in this region and report them to the University of Minnesota’s Great Lakes Waterbird Research Program. I’m keeping my fingers crossed the chicks will make it!”

Since 2017, plovers nesting on Gull Point — the only place they currently nest in Pennsylvania — have built four nests, hatched 13 chicks and fledged 12 chicks (two with assistance) in the wild.

The return of nesting plovers to Pennsylvania is tied to important habitat modifications made at Gull Point and an ongoing international recovery venture that is rebuilding the plover’s population across its geographic range.

“It’s an encouraging start for a Pennsylvania breeding bird that hadn’t nested in the Commonwealth since the mid-1950s,” explained Dan Brauning, Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Division chief. “Things were so bad for piping plovers that back in the mid-1980s, when the bird was listed as federally endangered, that less than 20 breeding pairs remained, mostly in Michigan.”

This year, from 71 nesting pairs about 115 piping plover chicks fledged from wild nests and a captive-rearing facility at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station, according to Vince Cavalieri, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who coordinates the Great Lakes piping plover recovery.

Gull Point’s 300 or so acres in the easternmost reaches of Presque Isle have been restored in recent years by eliminating woody vegetation and non-native plants vegetative cover. Much of the work, spearheaded by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, in collaboration with the Game Commission and USFWS, paved the way for breeding piping plovers to once again nest on Gull Point.

But the forces of nature that helped create Gull Point — erosion and deposition of sand — continually threaten its size and stability. It is a veritable living landmass, fluctuating in size and other ways with each incoming wave. This year is no exception, high water levels threatened the point’s only plover nest.

High water levels in the Great Lakes impacted the shoreline nests of piping plovers at many locations this summer. But plovers, sometimes with some human assistance, found a way to succeed.

At Gull Point, Game Commission personnel strategically placed and stacked sandbags to keep Lake Erie’s rising waters away from the state’s lone plover nest. It would become critical to the nest’s four eggs that would eventually hatch four chicks, all of which fledged into the wild.

“High-water levels challenged partners and staff involved with monitoring the nest this season, but ensuring the birds are doing well has been very rewarding,” said Matt Greene, who manages Presque Isle State Park for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). “We are excited that plover nesting has continued at Presque Isle State Park.”

Erie Bird Observatory staff monitored the plover nest daily and provided updates about what challenges the nesting pair of plovers faced. This year’s nesting pair at Presque Isle involved new breeders. Over the previous two years, different pairs nested and fledged young.

“The Erie Bird Observatory logged many miles through some tough conditions to be the eyes and ears of this unprecedented undertaking,” noted Sarah Sargent, Erie Bird Observatory Executive Director. “It’s been a gratifying experience and a big step forward for piping plover conservation in Pennsylvania.”

The new female hatched last year on Wasaga Beach on Ontario’s Georgian Bay. The male is progeny of the 2017 nest at Gull Point. The young male competed with its father for the female’s attention and won. It’s still unclear what happened to the female plover that had nested on Gull Point the first two years.

“Plovers nesting successfully in Pennsylvania three years in a row is a win for the species,” noted Nicole Ranalli, a USFWS biologist who oversees piping plover management from the agency’s State College office. “By establishing nests in Pennsylvania and New York, the species is becoming more resilient, which is a real turning point in its recovery.”

One of the rarest birds in the Great Lakes region, the piping plover is slightly larger than a sparrow and found in three geographically separated populations: Atlantic Coast and Northern Great Plains (protected as threatened) and the Great Lakes (protected as endangered). The world piping plover population numbers a little over 4,000 pairs.

Shortly after a territorial piping plover male was observed on Gull Point in 2005, the Game Commission, working with DCNR, developed a Presque Isle Piping Plover and Common Tern Partnership aiming to bring back to Pennsylvania both beleaguered species. Other partners include U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Army Corps of Engineers, Erie Bird Observatory, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Audubon Pennsylvania.

A 2007 Pennsylvania piping plover recovery assessment completed by Haffner recommended woody and invasive vegetation removal along the Gull Point Natural Area shoreline to improve recolonization potential, among other strategies.

A USFWS Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant, administered by the Game Commission, enabled the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and DCNR’s Presque Isle State Park to start an annual vegetation-control program within 33 acres of the Gull Point Natural Area in 2011.

At one time, Pennsylvania likely hosted up to 15 pairs of piping plovers at Presque Isle State Park — the only suitable breeding habitat in the state.

But steep declines in piping plover populations through the 1940s and ’50s – accompanied by increasing interference from development and human traffic on beaches and predation — endangered their Great Lakes and coastal populations.

Piping plovers are highly vulnerable to disturbance during all phases of the nesting season, because they could leave the area or abandon a nest or chicks. Consequently, the nests are in protected, restricted areas. Disturbance or harassment carries federal and state penalties.

The Gull Point Natural Area is closed to human traffic from April 1 to Nov. 30 and boats cannot moor within 100 feet of Gull Point. Visitors to Gull Point must stay on the trail to access the observation platform. Drones are not allowed at Presque Isle State Park.

Upon their return to breeding grounds in April and May, piping plover males set up and defend nesting territories. During courtship, males kick small depressions in the sand called scrapes. The female eventually will use one — often lined with small stones, pieces of vegetation or shell fragments — to lay her eggs, after which the pair will take turns incubating the eggs for about a month.


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