Leelanau News and Events

The First Great Lakes Piping Plover Tour In Michigan Comes To Sleeping Bear Dunes

By Ross Boissoneau | April 27, 2022

After being on the brink of extinction just 30 years ago, the Great Lakes piping plover is on the way back. You can help the continuing recovery efforts for this endangered species while watching their antics and enjoying a walk through the wilds of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, thanks to Julie Den Uyl. 

Through her Sleeping Bear Tour Co., Den Uyl is showcasing the birds while making sure they aren’t disturbed. “I don’t want to create a distraction,” she says, keeping the groups small enough they don’t unsettle the birds. “You won’t even know we are out there. We keep a safe distance.”

Den Uyl hatched the idea for the tours after realizing last summer that most of her tour-takers were in the dark about piping plover. “Our tours always included threatened and endangered species — like pitcher’s thistle — but 80 percent of our guests hadn’t heard of a piping plover. That’s how this all got started. We can educate further.”

Plus, she says, after spending so much time out in the dunes, “I am very attached to these little birds.”

The Great Lakes piping plover is a chubby little sparrow-size bird with a large, rounded head, a short thick neck, and a stubby bill that’s black on the tip. Because of their size and their natural camouflage, they are often hard to spot. Now you can go on a guided hike to learn about this shorebird, which was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1986.

Den Uyl, a former National Park Service ranger, opened the guided tour company a year ago. She says hers is the first tour service authorized to lead tours into the wilderness areas of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Nearly 800 pairs of Great Lakes piping plovers once called the region home. Their numbers dropped perilously close to the point of no return: There were only 13 pairs in the Great Lakes in 1990 before the birds began to rebound; today there are still just over 70 pairs.

Efforts to safeguard them and educate people about their plight continue today. They include Den Uyl’s two-hour tours, which enable hikers to come near — but not too close — to where the birds have their well-camouflaged nest and eggs (they look like beach stones!). “People bring binoculars. We’re not standing at the ropes, which protect the birds’ area. We sit down and enjoy the view,” she says, noting that piping plover recovery efforts are a reason dogs aren’t allowed on certain SBDNL beaches. “So they don’t disturb them.”

Den Uyl works to spread the knowledge and love of these rare birds. In addition, $10 from each hike goes toward efforts to protect the birds

Exploring the wilds was always a joy for Den Uyl when she was a ranger for the National Park Service. Now she is sharing her expertise and love of the outdoors with others. “I’m just here to bring people into nature,” she says.

Vince Cavalieri, wildlife biologist with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, says the birds have rebounded over the last three decades. Last year, he says there were 74 pairs of the birds around the Great Lakes.

When a nest is identified, a small trap is placed over it, which enables Cavalieri and his associates to capture and band any of the birds which have not already been banded. Numerous people take part in the protection efforts, including seasonal techs and researchers from universities and other agencies, tribal biologists, and other partners and volunteers; all told, he says about 60 people are involved in the efforts each year throughout the Great Lakes region.

“We do a really intense survey. About half [of the piping plovers] are here at Sleeping Bear. Last year there were 35 pairs,” he says. Most of the rest are scattered elsewhere in the state, including the Upper Peninsula, with a few pairs in Wisconsin; one pair was recently observed in the Chicago area. In addition to the Great Lakes, piping plovers are found in the Northern Great Plains and along the Atlantic coast. 

The plovers are what Cavalieri calls an umbrella species for the dunes area. Protecting them and their habitat means that many other species also end up being protected. Among them are turtles, snakes, other shorebirds like terns, and plants like pitcher’s thistle and Lake Huron pansy. As the largest freshwater ecosystem on the planet, protecting such assets is important for many reasons.

The hike to their nesting area is one of five tours Sleeping Bear Tour Co. offers along with beach, dune and wilderness hikes. New this year is a guided motor coach journey through the park. In deference to their nesting habits, Den Uyl offers the plover tours mornings only from mid-May through July. (Her other tours are available all day, throughout the spring and summer into fall.)

As Den Uyl says, you can’t spell plover without love. “I like just sitting and watching them. The world goes away.”

Editors Note: A previous version of this story indicated that Den Uyl’s Sleeping Bear Tour Co. was the first and only tour service authorized to lead tours into the wilderness areas of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. As of May 2022, Gloria Garrett, a certified naturalist with a PhD in energy medicine, is also authorized to take visitors on professional guided hikes within the National Lakeshore wilderness. Her Mindfulness in Nature hikes combine forest bathing, nature interpretation and energy balancing. 

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