Absent as a Pennsylvania breeding bird since the mid-1950s, two pairs of federally endangered Great Lakes piping plovers returned this year to nest in the Gull Point Natural Area at Presque Isle State Park in Erie County.
“The return of nesting piping plovers to the Lake Erie shoreline demonstrates the resolve of the Game Commission and its partners to expand Pennsylvania’s wildlife community and bring back what time and imprudence had taken from the Commonwealth,” noted Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Program Chief Dan Brauning. “It is invigorating to see more endangered species making a comeback.”
The two nests point to piping plovers recolonizing Lake Erie, as well as a positive response to ongoing specialized habitat management and improved environmental health within the Great Lakes ecosystem. The last recorded piping plover nest in the Erie basin was in 1977 at Long Point on Lake Erie’s north shore in Ontario.
“This is a testament to dedication and teamwork, not only in Pennsylvania but throughout the species’ range,” said Brauning. “Their return wasn’t by chance, or an accident.”
Lake Erie’s piping plover recolonization is a product of regional and local conservation investment, the culmination of decades of nest-site protection measures along the other four Great Lakes shorelines and active habitat restoration in the Gull Point Natural Area over the past six years, Brauning explained.
“Many have worked tirelessly for years throughout the piping plover’s range to bring this bird back from the brink of extinction and it certainly is paying off,” emphasized Cathy Haffner, a Game Commission biologist who has been involved in Great Lakes piping plover recovery efforts since 2001.
Two piping plover chicks took flight from one of the Gull Point nests. The second nest was overcome by strong waves the same day the first nest hatched. The Game Commission rescued the eggs, which were transferred first to the Detroit Zoo and then to the University of Michigan Biological Station piping plover captive-rearing facility. Two chicks hatched and will be released on Lake Michigan in early August.
Shortly after a territorial male was observed there in 2005, the Game Commission, working with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (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, Audubon Pennsylvania and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
“Achieving conservation goals is impossible without teamwork and dedicated partners,” noted Patti Barber, Game Commission biologist. “It’s the only way to bring a project like this to the finish line.”
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.
“The native plant community, including several rare plants, benefited from treatment,” said Ephraim Zimmerman, a Western Pennsylvania Conservancy ecologist. “This story is not just about bringing back bird species to Pennsylvania, it’s also about restoring an entire unique ecosystem.”
Audubon Pennsylvania monitored shorebird presence before and after treatment with a special eye toward piping plovers.
“Shorebird abundance nearly tripled after invasive plants and other vegetation were removed,” said Sarah Sargent, Audubon Pennsylvania bird conservation program manager.
That upsurge included more Great Lakes piping plovers stopping to refuel on their fall migration to the beaches in the southeastern United States.
“The nesting of endangered piping plovers exemplifies why Presque Isle State Park is an Important Bird Area,” noted Matt Greene, Presque Isle State Park manager. “Many years of extraordinary effort from all our partners led to this truly historic event.”
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.
Never abundant, but still somewhat common within suitable breeding habitat on Great Lakes shorelines in the early 1900s, the Great Lakes piping plover population bottomed out in the late 1980s, when only 17 breeding pairs – confined to Michigan’s shoreline – were recorded.
At one time, Pennsylvania likely hosted up to 15 pairs 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 the Great Lakes population.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protected the Great Lakes piping plover as a federally endangered species in 1986. The Northern Great Plains and Atlantic Coast piping plovers were protected as federally threatened species the same year.
Federal protection fueled research led by Francie Cuthbert at the University of Minnesota and University of Michigan Biological Station into Great Lakes piping plover breeding ecology, limiting factors to reproductive success, and rearing of abandoned eggs and chicks.
“The population has grown in recent years due to nest-site protections, such as closing areas to human activities and placing wire fencing around nests to protect the eggs,” said Cuthbert.
“Young males are the explorers, establishing territories at new sites that have wide, sparsely vegetated sand and cobble beaches,” she explained. “Over the last 10 to 12 years, high-lake levels and a growing population have caused birds to disperse from Michigan to historic nesting sites across the Great Lakes, like Presque Isle State Park.”
Starting in 1994, Presque Isle’s Gull Point, the farthest point of a sandy peninsula, was designated as a “natural area” and permanently closed to seasonal public use, because of its importance as a nursery and rest stop for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl. A year earlier, it had hosted a territorial male piping plover, the last until 2005.
“A key factor in setting the stage for plovers to return to Presque Isle was coordination with the Army Corps to manage unoccupied critical habitat in a way that both preserved the essential conditions for the birds and also met the goals of the Corps and the state park,” said Bob Anderson, USFWS Pennsylvania endangered species coordinator.
Gone for a generation, piping plover nesting on Lake Erie this year fills in the historic range map and leads Pennsylvania one step closer to ensuring future generations will have the chance to hear the bird’s distinctive peep-lo call along Lake Erie’s shores.
“The return of breeding plovers to Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie shoreline is truly historic,” said Vince Cavalieri, a USFWS biologist who coordinates Great Lakes piping plover management. “We had plovers nesting on all five of the Great Lakes at once for the first time since 1955. The return of breeding plovers to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in recent years is a major milestone in the recovery of this species.”
Tips for helping piping plovers and other shorebirds:
● Follow the guidance on signs and respect all areas fenced or posted for protection of wildlife.
● Watch these entertaining birds from a distance.
● If pets are permitted on beaches, keep them leashed and away from birds.
● Remove trash and food scraps, which attract animals that might eat piping plovers and their eggs.
● Do not feed animals on or near the beach. Keep your cats indoors.
● Volunteer as a piping plover monitor, ambassador, or educator.