Written by Sherry Gigous July 2021
Piping Plover Chick, Photo by Sheen Watkins
Adorable little balls of fluff are coming to a beach near you! Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is home to 35 pairs this season of nesting piping plovers (Charadrius melodus). During this nesting season, small birds will begin arriving around the Lakeshore in April and stay until August. At this time, these endangered birds must be given extra protection. Visitors may notice certain areas will be cordoned off and dog leashing rules strictly observed. (For reference: dogs should be on a 6-foot leash, closely controlled, and kept in designated areas. Restricted areas are clearly marked and fluid, depending on where Plover are specifically locating.)
Because these little white and sand-colored birds with black neckbands and bar patterns on their foreheads (these markings, only present during mating and nesting time, gradually fading away along with the bright orange of their legs during the rest of the year, and orange beaks turning black) lay four creamy colored, dark brown flecked eggs in open sandy pebbled areas, there is a greater chance of them being stepped on by humans. Human disruption, in general, may cause them to leave their nest, young and eggs vulnerable.
Both male and female of the lifelong pair. While pairs may stay together for many years, they are generally more tied into a place than a mate and will often switch mates, but not nesting locations! Pairs incubate the eggs, for 27 days. Hatchlings, looking much like cotton balls have feathers and are able to move and leave the nest within hours of hatching and will walk and run on the beach. They will be able to fly after about 28 days but will stick with adult birds through migration.
The Piping Plover voice sounds like, “peep-lo” or simply “peep.” Their diet consists of insects and other invertebrates due to limited vegetation growing on sandy beaches. Plovers are very territorial and will approach unsuspecting humans and attempt to “walk” them past nesting areas. Sometimes they feign a broken wing, such as their Killdeer cousins. If you see this particular behavior, please distance yourself as quickly and as much as possible from the area. You can also help by not burying trash or food on the beach that might attract predators.
It’s nothing short of miraculous so many of these birds choose the Great Lakes to build their families. They were hunted nearly into extinction by 1900, primarily for sport and gathering feathers for the hat industry. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, saw the Piping Plover population recovered to a 20th-century peak in the 1940s, only to decline again as human development and recreational use greatly intensified in coastal habitats. That decline led to Federal Endangered Species Act protection in 1986. In 1990 there were only 12 pairs in the Great Lakes population! Today there are seventy-five to eighty pairs. As recently as 2017, there were 41 of them calling SLBE home. This is your National Park Service at work!
For more information about Piping Plovers in Sleeping Bear Dunes: https://www.nps.gov/slbe/learn/nature/pipingplover.htm
Article by: Sherry Gigous, Friends Volunteer
Information Certified by:
Vince Cavalieri, CWB®
Wildlife Biologist, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Photo by: Sheen Watkins