2015 is shaping up to be a banner year for endangered Great Lakes piping plovers. This summer, 75 pairs of plovers nested and fledged 128 chicks, a record for a species that was nearly extirpated in the 1980s. Loss of habitat had caused numbers to dip below 20 pairs before the small shorebird was listed as endangered in 1986. Since then, biologists and conservationists have worked tirelessly to save this rare bird from extinction, preserving and restoring habitat, protecting nesting areas and monitoring the birds’ migrations.
Most Great Lakes piping plovers nest along Great Lakes shorelines and spend the winters on the sunny beaches of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. However, last winter, a team of biologists and researchers from the United States and the Bahamas found an ultra-rare Great Lakes piping plover: the bird’s bands – Of,YG:X,O – showed the bird hatched at North Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. This find and a few other sightings of Great Lakes birds in the Bahamas showed researchers that these islands could also contain important winter habitat for the critically endangered Great Lakes population.
Fast forward to this summer as Service biologists checked up on a report of a pair of Great Lakes piping plovers at Muskegon State Park along Lake Michigan. Nesting piping plovers hadn’t been seen there since the 1950, but Michigan DNR and Service biologists soon spotted a plover and nesting was confirmed. This is the farthest south piping plovers have nested in Michigan in decades.
Working with state park staff, biologists quickly moved to protect the nest with an exclosure that lets adult birds in and out but keeps out predators. As they kept an eye on the nest, they noticed the bands on one of the adult birds. The band combination showed the bird had hatched on Manitou Island. A closer look allowed biologists to see the band combination of Of,YG:X,O. Biologists realized that the plover at Muskegon State Park and the one caught in the Bahamas this past winter are one and the same!
In her short life, the now 2-year-old plover Of,YG:X,O has likely traveled from her birthplace on Lake Michigan to the Bahamas twice, a distance of at least 6,000 miles. Some piping plovers can live to 15 years of age. If Of,YG:X,O lives that long, this tiny bird, weighing less than 2 ounces, could potentially complete the epic journey 30 times, traveling more than 45,000 miles!
Shorebirds are some of the greatest travelers the earth has ever known but many shorebirds species are declining. Many, like the Great Lakes piping plover, are critically imperiled. If we want to continue to share the world with great travelers like Of,YG:X,O, whose inspiring journeys span continents and cross broad stretches of ocean, we need to learn to share our beaches, both in the Great Lakes and on the wintering grounds. The next time you visit a beach, remember to be respectful of wildlife around you.