HARRISBURG, PA - For the second consecutive year, a pair of federally endangered piping plovers is courting on Presque Isle State Park’s Gull Point.
In 2017, the same pair, identified by leg bands, nested, hatched three piping plover chicks and ultimately raised two, the first Pennsylvania has ushered into the wild since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.
Remarkably, that nest wasn’t the Commonwealth’s only piping plover nest. Another, on the same beach, had four eggs rescued when strong waves threatened to carry them into Lake Erie. Those eggs hatched two more chicks that were released last August on Lake Superior after being raised at the University of Michigan Biological Station piping plover captive-rearing facility.
Mary Birdsong, shorebird monitor for Erie Bird Observatory, has been keeping tabs on Gull Point’s beach bird activity from an observation deck. She reported the female plover was first observed May 3. The male was first seen on April 21.
“That both birds are back from the nest that reared two chicks last year is great news,” explained Cathy Haffner, a Game Commission biologist who has been involved in Great Lakes piping plover recovery efforts since 2001. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed that the pair from the failed nest also returns.
“There’s always some chance piping plovers won’t return; survival is never guaranteed to a bird that weighs less than a deck of cards and migrates every spring and fall,” Haffner said. “Last year’s nest failure also could compel the other plovers to nest elsewhere.”
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 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, Erie Bird Observatory and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
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.
“DCNR is very excited about this special species returning to Presque Isle State Park following the nesting success last season,” DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said. “The partners involved have worked tirelessly to plan and coordinate activities to encourage this success. From creating a recovery plan, to performing invasive species control, to on-the-ground monitoring, this is a credit to the conservation efforts by all involved.”
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 best news is that piping plovers have returned to Presque Isle a year after they successfully nested and reared young there,” emphasized Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “But it’s important to remember their comeback is still in its infancy. The birds need time.”
Piping plovers are highly vulnerable to disturbance during all phases of the nesting season. They could leave the area or abandon a nest or chicks. Disturbance or harassment carries federal and state penalties.
“As a federally endangered species, every piping plover matters,” emphasized Burhans. “With fewer than 80 pairs in the Great Lakes, it’s imperative that we ensure they have the space they need to be successful.”
To ensure the plovers remain undisturbed, they are protected by a restricted area. Restricted areas are designated by signage and fences. Disturbing nesting piping plovers carries fines and penalties.
Visitors to Gull Point can help the plovers and other shorebirds by keeping pets leashed, and leaving nothing behind but footprints. Visitors also are asked not to feed wildlife.
Drones are not allowed at Presque Isle State Park. In addition, the Gull Point Natural Area is closed to human traffic from April 1 to Nov. 30 and boats cannot moor within 100 feet of the Point.
If the Gull Point Trail is open, visitors may visit the observation platform. No one is permitted to leave the trail.
“Decades of efforts by landowners, organizations and government agencies are paying off,” said Vince Cavalieri, USFWS Great Lakes piping plover recovery coordinator. “We – and the plovers – are grateful and ask for continued partnership to help this endangered shorebird reach and maintain full recovery.”
The USFWS reports the first piping plover nests of the 2018 nesting season in the Great Lakes should be found shortly.
Upon their return to breeding grounds in March and April, males set up and defend nesting territories. They create pre-nests, called scrapes, that are small depressions in the sand lined sometimes by small stones or shell fragments. The female will use one to lay her eggs, after which the pair will take turns incubating the eggs for about a month.
Once hatched, the chicks are up and running, feeding on small insects and invertebrates in the intertidal zone. They are most vulnerable during the first five days, after which their chances for survival start to increase. Over the next few weeks, their wings develop and they learn to fly. Until that time, chicks respond to vehicles, predators, and pedestrians by “freezing” and crouching down in the sand to hide, becoming almost perfectly camouflaged.
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