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Piping plovers making slow, steady comeback

It’s piping plover nesting season along the dunes of the Great Lakes. The tiny birds were labeled endangered back in the mid-80s.

Since then, they’ve steadily been making a comeback. But it takes a whole lot of effort.

One of this year’s nests is in Ludington State Park. There's a female who’s chosen to rear her young in this park before.

But this time she picked an odd spot to do it. She’s right in the middle of a beach-side parking lot.

It’s hard to spot the tiny nest, which is surrounded by pavement.

Sarah Saunders & her research crew from the University of Minnesota stand just a few feet away.

“This is also the weirdest I’ve seen in five years,” she says.

But they’re watching the mother through telescopes.

“She seems  a little more skittish, so…”

Through nesting season this crew is traveling the state, banding birds for future monitoring. Meanwhile, a crew here at the state park will watch this nest every single day, until the fledglings hatch mid-June, and until they’re ready to fly mid-July.

“Protecting them and their nesting habitat is protecting a lot of the other dune species: pitcher’s thistle, other shorebirds and stuff like that. And it’s a responsibility we have for making sure they’re still part of the Great Lakes,” she says.

Most of this parking lot will stay roped off as the summer tourism season gets underway. The research crew hopes maybe this mother’s public nesting spot will drum up more public interest for protecting the tiny, endangered shorebirds.

Little steps toward recovery

Sometimes plovers choose some strange places to nest. But normally, they like wide open, sandy beaches with pebbles. They like to lay their eggs out in the open in those pebbly spots, so their nests are pretty vulnerable.

Jack Dingledine is the deputy field supervisor with the Ecological Services Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in East Lansing.

He says plovers have been doing better the last couple of years.

"Last year we had 66 breeding pairs recorded and that's up from a number in the 50s the year before. So the bird is still critically endangered. But you know, at one point, when the birds were first listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, we had fewer than 20 pairs. So we've made some steady progress in number," he says.

He says the continued monitoring of the birds and their nests and efforts to protect them are going to be vital for long-term success.

Dingledine says there are a couple ways you can help.

"If you see the birds, you want to make sure you don't disturb them. In particular, if you see what's called a broken wing display, you want to back away from that spot because that means they're guarding their nest and you wouldn't want to accidentally step on the eggs," he says.

Here's what that looks like:


He also recommends keeping your dogs on a leash in plover nesting areas, so they won't chase the birds.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.