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Park Point plover plight perplexing for Great Lakes region

Endangered piping plovers, like this one on Long Island in Chequamegon Bay, may return to Twin Ports beaches in coming days. People and their dogs are asked to stay away if signs are posted that plovers are present. File photo

DULUTH, Minn. --The federal government, state wildlife managers, university researchers and nonprofit conservation groups have been trying to restore piping plovers to the Great Lakes for decades, with mixed success.

In some areas, where the plovers have quiet, untrammeled beaches to nest on, the effort has been successful. Their numbers are stable at Long Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin's Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior. North Manitou Island, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan, hosted 20 pairs of plovers in 2016, the biggest Great Lakes colony.

But in Duluth and Superior, despite miles of Lake Superior sand beaches that should provide good plover habitat, the number of nesting plovers has been stuck at zero for decades.

It's not that the critically endangered plovers haven't tried. Plovers were spotted on Park Point beaches in 2015 and again in 2016. But in both cases they were scared away by people and their free-running dogs, even after signs were posted urging people to stay away from that section of beach.

"I was literally putting up the sign asking people not to walk through that stretch of beach and a woman walked by her with her dog and let the dog go free," said Kris Eilers, executive director of the St. Louis River Alliance.

The plovers, probably wandering young birds that hatched in Wisconsin or Michigan in recent summers, simply didn't tolerate repeated intrusions by people or animals. The skittish birds left after just a day or two in Duluth and were never seen again.

In both 2015 (two males) and 2016 (one female) the plovers showed up about May 1, so the Alliance will have signage up and volunteers out to watch for the birds now through mid-June.

The Alliance has been working in both Duluth and Superior under federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grants for years to watch for plovers on beaches and try to keep people, dogs and predators away if any show up to nest. The group on Saturday, April 29, will train volunteers to watch for plovers, act as plover ambassadors/educators to people they meet on the beach, and explain to people why they should avoid that area of beach if birds are present.

The birds lay their nests out on the open beach, above the wet line from waves.

The Alliance also has grant money to pay for increased Duluth Police Department patrols along the beach to ticket people who violate city ordinance by letting let their dogs run off-leash. Duluth park rangers also help keep people away when possible. The Alliance also has the support of many Park Point residents, many of whom have taken a keen interest in seeing plovers stay and nest, Eilers said.

"We have tried to do what's practical, but the part of the beach they (plovers) have come to the past two years is also where people like to go," not far from the Park Point Beach House, Eilers said. "We're looking at other options, more signage or fencing. But it's a struggle with so many people and dogs out there."

Great Lakes beaches were once home to an estimated 800 pairs of piping plovers. But by 1986, the piping plover was placed on the federal endangered species list with just a few nesting pairs returning each summer. Researchers say the population decline was due in large part to nest disruption by human activity on beaches and because of development and other habitat loss along shorelines.

Slowly, however, their numbers have rebounded. Last summer 68 nesting pairs were counted in the Great Lakes population, the same as 2015.

Success has come gradually, and in fits and spurts. On Long Island off Ashland in Chequamegon Bay, acquired by the National Park Service in 1986 specifically as piping plover habitat, it took until 1998 for the first nesting pair to show up. Since then the colony has grown to an average of five nesting pairs each summer, producing about 15 chicks. Those 25 or so birds are the only piping plovers in Wisconsin, and their future is never certain due to weather events and the perils of migration.

Last year high water on Lake Superior and storms with big waves wiped out all three plover nests on Long Island, said Julie Van Stappen, chief of planning and resource management for Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The three pairs re-nested and managed to produce five chicks that survived to fly south, so the season wasn't a total loss.

"This year the lake is back down to near average, so there should be more habitat available for nesting," Van Stappen said.

There still are no nesting on Minnesota's share of Lake Superior. But that could change if a male and female settle in Duluth in the next few weeks.

The little birds arrive at the Great Lakes in late April or early May from their wintering grounds in Cuba, the Bahamas and U.S. states on the Gulf of Mexico. They quickly mate and make their haphazard nests on broad, open, cobble beaches well away from trees that might house predators.

The chicks hatch in June, and by early August the adults have taken off, leaving the new fledglings to fend for themselves. Somehow the little ones figure it out and head south when they are strong enough, usually a couple weeks behind their parents.

BOX

If you go

• Volunteer training session for piping plover monitors

• Saturday, 11 a.m.

• Park Point Beach House, 5000 Minnesota Ave., Duluth

• Volunteers are needed to watch for endangered piping plovers along Twin Ports beaches, keep beaches clean and educate the public on plovers. No special skills or equipment needed.

• For more information, contact Alyssa at alyssa@stlouisriver.org or call (218) 733-9520.

(Anyone who wants also can participate in a beach cleanup on Saturday.)

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