Leelanau News and Events

An Unexpected Summer For The Plover At Sleeping Bear Dunes

By Emily Tyra | July 23, 2020

It’s been an unusual summer for all of us, including for the piping plovers, the endangered shorebirds that return to mate at their nesting beaches within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (SBDNL). Plot twists like tropical storms, washed-out nests, and parking-lot exchanges of eggs have kept the birds and the SBDNL wildlife team hopping since the first plover “Earl” arrived in mid-April

Vince Cavalieri, the Lakeshore’s wildlife biologist, tells the Leelanau Ticker that of the 73 individual adults that came to nest at Sleeping Bear this summer, 60 of them mated for a total of 30 different pairs.

But when it came to fledging chicks, the parent plovers “had a strange season, in many ways,” says Cavalieri. To start, when the remnants of the tropical storm came through in mid-June, it washed out seven plover nests on North Manitou. “And all of them re-nested — that’s a little bit unprecedented. We’ve had nests wash out in storm events before, but maybe only one or two, not seven at once. And I was doubly surprised that so many plovers reinstalled nests as late in the season as it was.”

He says starting from square one means the plover season will likely go “really late,” keeping the birds here in Northern Michigan for several more weeks to raise their chicks.

Cavalieri explains that while no one was on the island during the storm, the wildlife team was able to rescue some of the eggs: “We typically have a long-term field camp on the island and multiple people stay out there for the summer. Because of COVID-19 we adapted that to a smaller camp and only one person stays at a time.”

He says, “We knew the storm was coming, and didn’t want someone stranded out there, so the plover monitor came off the island.” When the tech returned and discovered the washed-out nests, there was still time to rush the eggs back to the mainland.

Here the plot thickens again: the SBDNL takes part in a captive rearing program where abandoned eggs go up to the University of Michigan Bio Station in Pellston. When it’s time, the Detroit Zoo sends staff up to help raise the chicks. “Because of the university shutdowns this year we were not able to, so I had the eggs in an incubator in my office in Empire,” says Cavalieri.

Ultimately all the eggs were transported to the Detroit Zoo — SBDNL techs and Detroit zookeepers met half-way to do a handoff — where they were hatched. Now the baby birds will be released. “We just released the first set of captives at the park,” Cavalieri says.

All told, it’s a success story this summer for this endangered bird: “We fledged 30 chicks in the wild in the park so far, and potentially another 10 in the wild from the new nests that hatched on North Manitou.” Then there’s a total of 40 captive-raised chicks Cavalieri and his team will be potentially releasing in the park in the next 3 to 4 weeks. “The most we have ever had,” he says. He notes that not all of the chicks to be released are from Sleeping Bear — some will be coming from Wilderness State Park, Silver Lake Sand Dunes, and a few from the Upper Peninsula.

The same mid-June storm that washed out the plover nests delayed the (already long-awaited) Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive opening. SBDNL superintendent Scott Tucker expressed relief that one of the park’s most popular attractions could finally accommodate visitors, saying, “The pandemic really set us back. We had a big list of projects, including clearing many, many downed trees. Then we had that big windstorm in June and had to start the road clearing all over again.”

One big project is still delaying the full reopening — replacement of the entrance station that sits at the base of the scenic drive — so for the next several weeks, Pierce Stocking is only open on Saturdays and Sundays.

But there is a bonus chance to tour Pierce Stocking today and tomorrow: The contractor working on the entrance to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is not here this week, says SBDNL staff, meaning the drive is open today, Thursday, July 23 through Sunday, July 26. (Work will begin again on Monday, July 27 and continue through the weekend of August 1 and 2.) If all goes well, the drive will then be closed on weekdays only until the entrance station construction is completed at the end of August.

Photo: Piping plover by Vince Cavalieri, wildlife biologist at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

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