The endangered species piping plover calls Manistee County home

MANISTEE COUNTY — It’s no secret that many of the world’s avian species are under threat from habitat loss and pollution. And one of these rare birds is making its last stand along northern Michigan’s west coast.

Meet the Great Lakes piping plover, or Charadrius melodus, a small darting shorebird that nests in Manistee and Benzie counties, along with other distinct populations found elsewhere in the Northern Great Plains and along the Atlantic coast.

“Birds from all three populations winter on the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts in the United States, as well as in the Bahamas,” according to information on

For a time, the birds’ melodic call was commonly heard by beachgoers and coastal residents.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Cape Cod, “… if I were required to name a sound, the remembrance of which most perfectly revives the impression which the beach has made, it would be the dreary peep of the piping plover which haunts there .”

But in the years since Thoreau was moved to write about the plover, populations of these diminutive birds have plummeted.

The shores of the Great Lakes were once home to nearly 800 pairs of piping plovers, but by 1990 that number had dropped to 13, according to

The piping plover is globally threatened and endangered; It is uncommon and local within its range, and has been listed by the United States as “endangered” in the Great Lakes region and “threatened” in the remainder of its breeding range, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

There are only approximately 4,000 breeding pairs left worldwide, according to the National Audubon Society website.

Julie Den Uyl, a former park ranger at Sleeping Bear Dune National Park, says the reason for the reduced population is simple: man. Things like habitat destruction, increased predation and nest disruption contributed to their rapid decline.

Den Uyl operates Sleeping Bear Tour Co., a state licensed tour company that offers guided tours of plover nesting sites at the park.

“Half of the population nests here within Sleeping Bear Dunes, so that would be the 35 miles of coasts that we have here including North and South Manitou Island,” Den Uyl told the News Advocate.

“We are home to over half the Great Lakes population, so it’s a very important area for their protection.”

Piping plovers can be found at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore from early April through mid-August, according to the National Parks Service website. They return in April and early May and remain here through the summer to nest and raise their young.

A piping plover chick searches for food.

Provided photo/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Areas around the nests are roped off during the breeding season at Sleeping Bear to protect the birds from disturbances that would cause them to abandon their nests.

In order for habitat to be physically and biologically suitable for piping plovers, it must have a total shoreline length of at least 12 miles of gently sloping, sparsely vegetated sand beach with a total beach area of ​​at least five acres, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

In mid-July the females begin assembling in flocks to migrate south for the winter, leaving their mates to watch over the chicks until they are able to fly, states part of the park service website.

Once the chicks are independent in late July, both the males and the chicks begin to leave the Great Lakes area and by late August, all have left for warmer climates.

With conservation efforts, Den Uyl says these birds are poised to make a comeback in northwest Michigan.

“The National Lakeshore is a huge positive (benefit) to the breed, just by protecting the shoreline and not allowing the mass building of condominiums and homes along the lakeshore,” Den Uyl said, adding that “if those homes were there, there would be no plovers.”

A United States National Lakeshore is an area of ​​lakeshore that has been designated a protected area with the purpose of preserving environmental, cultural, scenic, recreational, natural or habitat resources. They are administered, maintained and protected by the National Park Service.

The Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team — a partnership between federal and state agencies, Great Lakes tribal governments, universities and other conservation organizations — is also working to ensure the shorebird recovers, according to

Den Uyl also credits the work of Dr. Francie Cuthbert, whose career-long effort to conserve and restore piping plover populations in the Great Lakes is paying dividends.

“(Cuthbert) has dedicated her entire life to saving the species,” Den Uyl said. “She kind of gave me the idea of ​​tourism for protection.”

Piping plovers at their wintering at Turks and Caicos Islands.

Piping plovers at their wintering at Turks and Caicos Islands.

Provided photo/Bri Rudinsky/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Cuthbert, a professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at University of Minnesota, operates an intensive captive rearing and re-release program at the University of Michigan Biological Station near Pellston.

Each season, plover eggs are rescued from nests that are abandoned, “due to the loss of one of the adults to predation, or due to nest wash-out because of high water,” reads part of the website “Rescued eggs are rushed to the University of Michigan Biological Station … where the Detroit Zoo manages a captive rearing facility for Great Lakes piping plovers.”

With these combined efforts, the National Parks Service reports that the number of Great Lakes nesting plovers has risen to 76 pairs in 2017, with 41 pairs found nesting at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The National Audubon Society lists the following eight things residents and tourists can do to help the plovers:

1. Report the location of piping plovers and their nests.

2. Stay away from nest exclosures and posted piping plovers breeding areas.

3. Always keep dogs leashed.

4. Pack out your food waste and garbage.

5. Leave driftwood and algae on the beaches.

6. Do not operate vehicles on beaches with nesting piping plovers.

7. Report people or pets disturbing piping plovers or their nests.

8. Become informed.

“Learning more about piping plovers and other coastal birds and sharing information with others is another great way to help protect them,” reads part of the audubon website.

For more information, to report a plover nesting site or find other ways you can get involved, visit

Anyone wishing to make an additional contribution to research efforts can do so by visiting this link:

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