Effort at Lake Superior beach aims to help Wisconsin's rarest birdIf you build it, or at least keep dogs and gulls away, they will come. That’s the hope along a swath of Lake Superior shoreline in Douglas County this summer under a federally funded program to restore piping plovers, Wisconsin’s rarest bird.
By: John Myers , Duluth News Tribune
If you build it, or at least keep dogs and gulls away, they will come.
That’s the hope along a swath of Lake Superior shoreline in Douglas County this summer under a federally funded program to restore piping plovers, Wisconsin’s rarest bird.
The St. Louis River Alliance is organizing the effort under a five-year, $250,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The diminutive shorebird is seen on occasion passing through the Twin Ports, but no confirmed plover nesting has occurred here in more than 25 years.
The focus is on Shaffer Beach outside Superior, and crews in coming weeks will erect a concoction of posts, cables and wires along 600 feet of the waterfront in hopes of keeping gulls away.
As plovers head north from their wintering grounds in Florida, plover monitors hired by the River Alliance will keep watch for any sign of the birds. If any do stop to nest, the monitors can help keep unleashed dogs, people and predators away from the eggs and chicks. Crews will install mesh cages that keep predators out while allowing the plovers to come and go.
“Plovers already come here during their migration. We hope to give them a reason to stay and nest,’’ said Julene Boe, executive director of the St. Louis River Alliance.
The birds favor broad sand beaches with no trees. They nest where the sand near shore mixes with small rocks and driftwood, just outside areas of dune grass. Shaffer Beach appears to have what they like, and it’s less visited by people, unleashed dogs and predators than other Twin Ports waterfronts.
The effort also needs the public’s help, and the River Alliance on Tuesday will hold an informational meeting for volunteers willing to become trained plover spotters along both Minnesota Point on the Duluth side and Wisconsin Point in Superior.
The trained volunteers will provide more eyeballs to see how many plovers show up here. From late April into July, volunteers can donate a little or a lot of their time to watch for plovers, mark the GPS coordinates where they are looking and, even if they don’t see a plover, keep track of activity they do see.
“It’s a chance to sit on a beach on Lake Superior and help watch for this incredible little bird,” said Connie Moeller, grants administrator for the River Alliance.
A similar plover recovery effort has worked on Long Island off Ashland in Chequamegon Bay. The National Park Service, which acquired part of the island in 1986 specifically to protect piping plover habitat, has been working to restore the bird ever since. They identified likely spots, kept human activities to a minimum and then waited. For 12 years.
Finally, in 1998, a pair of piping plovers from Michigan meandered west and decided that Long Island looked good enough to nest on. The colony’s numbers have been slowly building, and last summer six pairs of adults nested on the island, the most ever since plover’s returned. They also hatched a record nine chicks that survived long enough to learn how to fly.
Those 21 plovers, if they all make it back north, are all that Wisconsin has.
Success on Long Island has come slowly because piping plovers are what wildlife officials call “maladaptive.” That’s biologist talk for dense, unable or unwilling to change habits that keep their own population down.
“They are just very, very picky about where they want to nest. They have to have just the right combination of rock size and sand. And unfortunately that happens to be on an open beach where the weather and storms and predators can take them out,” said Julie Van Stappen, wildlife expert at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
The birds will arrive any day now, nest in late May, lay eggs in June, raise their chicks in July and then fly south in August.
Sometimes, storms send waves crashing into their nests, but the little birds often try again. They usually lay four eggs. But gulls, ravens, crows, skunks, fox, coyote and wolves all are potential predators, as are hawks. The Park Service moves fast to erect “predator exclosures,” but less than half of all chicks live long enough to fly.
“It’s not happening fast,” Van Stappen said. “But, on Long Island at least, the trend is going the right way.”