Piping Plovers win and lose on Presque Isle

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Federally-endangered piping plovers are nesting for the third consecutive year on Presque Isle State Park’s Gull Point. But the birds have added some daytime drama to their Pennsylvania presence.

“It’s like a soap opera out there,” noted Cathy Haffner, a Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist who has been involved in Great Lakes piping plover recovery efforts since 2001. “This year’s nesting plovers are not the pair that nested on Gull Point over the past two years.”

The nesting male is the progeny of a 2017 Presque Isle plover nest. He is partnered with a female hatched last year at Wasaga Beach on Ontario’s Georgian Bay, some 250 miles north of Presque Isle.

“This year’s nesting male was actually vying with his dad for the new female’s attention,” Haffner said. “Dad lost.”

This new nesting pair ensures Presque Isle – and Pennsylvania – continues to contribute to the recovery of Great Lakes piping plovers. But the achievement is somewhat sullied by the apparent loss of a productive nesting female.

“What happened to the original nesting female that fledged plover chicks into the wild for two consecutive years is unknown,” Haffner said in early July. “She hasn’t been seen on the Gull Point nesting grounds – or elsewhere – this year. It would appear she didn’t make it.”

The missing female – also originating from Wasaga Beach – had too much invested to go elsewhere, Haffner reasoned.

“Typically, when a female plover is successful raising chicks, she comes back,” Haffner said.

So far, the new nesters are doing quite a job, and the Erie Bird Observatory, as well as Erie County game wardens and agency biologists have been keeping an eye on the Commonwealth’s lone known plover nest. Predators can be a problem, as well as human beach canvassers who might ignore the prominent signage restricting access to Gull Point.

“Working together, whether internally, or with partners, is what the Game Commission does best,” noted Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “One-day piping plovers again might nest on Gull Point as they did 80 years ago, because of the teamwork occurring at Presque Isle today.”

The biggest ongoing concern is the high water level of Lake Erie, has continued to rise since May, Haffner said.

Water levels remained high across the Great Lakes as June closed, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ weekly Great Lakes water-level report, issued June 28. The forecast for June 28 indicated 1 to 5 inches of increased water level for all of the lakes from this time last month. The lake levels are expected to exceed average water levels from this time last year by 10 to 15 inches, except for Lake Ontario, which is forecasted at 28 inches.

There have been some close calls, Haffner noted, but Erie Game Wardens Andrew Hueser and Cody Jones and biologist Tim Hoppe have kept rising Lake Erie waters at bay by strategically placing and stacking sandbags on the beach near the nest.

“We’ve had some nail-biter days,” observed Hueser. “The water has been as close as a foot to the nest.”

The nest is monitored by a trail camera that transmits photos to Hueser and Hoppe.

“Getting out to Gull Point every day is a challenge, especially this year with the very high lake levels,” emphasized Sarah Sargent, Erie Bird Observatory executive director. “Getting to the observation platform involves wading through thigh-high water, and of course the weather is always more extreme on the exposed tip of the peninsula. But it’s worth it so we can make sure the birds are ok.”

Gull Point’s 300 or so acres in the easternmost reaches of Presque Isle have been restored in recent years by eliminating vegetative cover Much of the work, involving the Game Commission, state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Army Corps of Engineers, paved the way for breeding piping plovers to consider once again nesting 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 again threaten the plover nest.

“We can’t hold back Lake Erie,” Haffner explained.

But the Game Commission does have a response plan, should Lake Erie encroach on the nest. The eggs would be transported to a captive rearing facility. Two years ago, elevated water reached a nest; the eggs were rescued by Hoppe soon after water spilled into the nest.

Last year, the former pair of plovers nesting on Gull Point hatched and raised four chicks. In 2017, the pair nested, hatched three piping plover chicks and ultimately raised two, the first Pennsylvania-hatched plovers since the 1950s. One of those is the male of the current nesting pair.

A second 2017 plover nest 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 on Lake Superior after being raised at the University of Michigan Biological Station piping plover captive rearing facility. One of those survivors has nested in Michigan for the past two years.

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.

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 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.

Once hatched and dry, the plover chicks are up and running, independently feeding on small insects and invertebrates along with shallow beach pools and the Lake Erie waterline in close proximity to both parents. They are most vulnerable during the first week, 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.