The Piping Plover is a small, stocky shorebird, similar in size to the American Robin that blends well with its beach habitat having a sandy colored body, white underside and distinct orange legs. During the breeding season the plover has a black forehead and breast band with an orange bill.
There are three geographical areas where Piping Plovers breed in North America—along the Atlantic Coast, throughout the Northern Great Plains and along the Great Lakes. Michigan is home to the vast majority of breeding plovers in the Great Lakes Region. Michigan plovers prefer wide, sandy, open beaches with little to no vegetation. In 1986, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Great Lakes Piping Plover population as an endangered species; that same year the other two populations were listed as a threatened species.
Historically, several hundred breeding pairs were observed in 20 counties throughout Michigan but by 1986 there were only 17 breeding pairs in nine counties. This initial decline was largely due to excess hunting in the 19th and early 20th century, until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 stopped this activity. Population numbers began to slowly increase until the 1950s when the plovers saw another decline in numbers, this time due to increased habitat loss, recreational pressure, predation and habitat contamination. Additionally, high lake levels in the late 1970s and mid 1980s temporarily removed a vast amount of nesting area for the birds.
These deterrents have decreased the Great Lakes Piping Plover’s survival rates; fledging young report approximately a 30 percent survival rate while adults report about 70 percent. Longevity records indicate Michigan plovers have a difficult time reaching five years of age or older with only 13 percent of females and 28 percent of males surviving to five.
Since 1986, the number of nesting pairs has ranged from 12 to 32 with Michigan housing all of the nesting plover pairs in 2000.
Today, several federal, state and nonprofit agencies, universities and private research centers have conducted studies on the plover’s populations and are actively working to save the shorebird. Management techniques include controlling human access to nesting areas, closing off beaches during peak breeding season, monitoring and protecting nests, properly managing water flow and levels and limiting residential and industrial development in known plover breeding areas.
Michigan Audubon currently assists the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the recruitment, training and supervision of volunteers. These qualified volunteers monitor Piping Plover nesting sites in the Tawas area. Volunteers also search historical locations between Bay City and Mackinaw City on Lake Huron. If you are interested in volunteering visit: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/pipingplover/volunteers.html
Proper management techniques and dedicated volunteers have produced promising numbers for the Great Lakes Piping Plovers but the species is still extremely vulnerable to demographic or environmental events that have the potential to remove the population completely. The next decade of conservation will be critical to this species population and will hopefully lead to the removal of the plovers from the Endangered Species List.
If you would like to make a contribution to the Michigan Audubon Piping Plover conservation, visit www.michiganaudubon.org/donate.