TRAVERSE CITY — Many wild creatures cope with raising their young within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore during the height of tourist season.
But none rely on public awareness and cooperation more than the little piping plover, the sparrow-sized, sand-colored shorebird that nests and feeds along the park’s sand and gravel beaches.
The Great Lakes piping plover — close to extinction three decades ago — is beginning to make a comeback, thanks to programs implemented by the staff at Sleeping Bear Dunes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“When the Great Lakes Piping Plovers were first listed on the endangered species list in 1986 there were just 16 pairs left in the Great Lakes region,” said Vincent Cavalieri, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Great Lakes Piping Plover recovery coordinator.
“The three North American species of plovers, the Atlantic Coast piping plover, the Great Plains plovers and the Great Lakes plovers, are migratory birds that winter together in Florida off the Gulf Coast area, but they’re all distinct populations, meaning they only breed within that population,” said biologist Sue Jennings, the wildlife program manager at Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Both biologists agree that Sleeping Bear Dunes is the most important site on the Great Lakes for recovery efforts. “One third of the whole Great Lakes plover breeding population nests there,” Cavalieri said of Sleeping Bear Dunes’ beaches.
Jennings said the Great Lakes plovers begin to return to the park mid-April through May to set up their nests, primarily on North Manitou Island and along the shoreline near the Platte River.
“The plovers are ground-nesting birds that lay four eggs in a nest cup which is nothing more than an impression in the sand,” Jennings said. “The only protection for the eggs is their camouflage that closely resembles the sand pebbles along the shore.”