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Great Lakes piping plovers had record year

A piping plover runs along the beach at Long Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 2009. Forum News Service file photo

DULUTH — Piping plovers are still flying over Duluth and Superior, Wis., beaches to nest elsewhere, but their overall Great Lakes population went up significantly in 2017.

The diminutive shorebirds have long since migrated south to the Gulf of Mexico, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported Monday, Nov. 13, that a modern record 76 breeding pairs were counted on Great Lakes beaches this summer.

Moreover, it was the first summer that piping plovers nested on all five Great Lakes since 1955, a benchmark the Fish and Wildlife Service called "a remarkable development for the recovery program."

Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore saw by far the most plovers with a record 41 pairs. The previous high there was 28.

Wisconsin also saw its most plovers in decades, with a record eight pairs. Four pairs were spotted on the shores of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, while the number of nesting pairs jumped from one to four at the Cat Island chain in Green Bay, where recent habitat restoration work proved successful at attracting birds for the first time in decades.

And Lake Erie saw its first plovers nesting since 1977 with two pairs of plovers nesting on Gull Point at Presque Isle State Park, Pa. Efforts there included volunteers and staff from nonprofit groups and government agencies working together to help two chicks from those nests fledge in the wild. They also rescued two eggs that were washed out so they could fledge successfully at a captive rearing station.

So far the plethora of plovers has skipped Minnesota, which still has no confirmed Great Lakes piping plovers nesting. Plovers have been seen on Duluth's Park Point Beach in recent years but have been scared away by human activity, especially free-roaming dogs on the beach. Efforts to set aside plover habitat to lure the birds to nest in the Twin Ports so far have failed.

While the number of adult plovers nesting was up, the number of chicks they raised successfully was down due to high water, summer storms and predators raiding nests. An average of 1.3 chicks per nest successfully fledged, down from the five-year average of 1.64.

Plovers, which nest on wide-open sand and gravel beaches, were once fairly common along Great Lakes waterfronts but were displaced in the 1900s by development and human activity along the lakes.

Plovers fly north in May and nest on the beach, and then head back south in August. Their simple pebble nests, in the open, are vulnerable to large waves and predators like gulls, crows and small mammals.

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