Meet Old Man Plover, the Pride of the Great Lakes

Each spring, on the northwestern shores of Lake Michigan, a three-toed Piping Plover can be found incubating his eggs. The hobbled bird is a creature of habit: Every year he returns to his birthplace in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to make another clutch of babies with his mate. And not only is he particular about his real estate, he’s also punctual. For the last three years, he’s flown back from winter migration on the same exact date—April 13.

He’s a grizzled bird, having weathered quite a few storms over his lifetime. At 15 years old, he’s outlived the average Piping Plover by a decade, making him the oldest member of the entire Great Lakes population. While he isn’t the first to survive this long—there’s a Piping Plover in the Atlantic population that’s two years older—he’s been instrumental in helping the species make a comeback in his region.  

The locals call him BO:X,g (pronounced box gee) after the combination of letters on the bands around his legs, which are used to identify and track him through his migration cycle. But his reputation called for a more apropos nickname, says Alice Van Zoeren, a University of Minnesota biologist. So, someone came up with “Old Man Plover,” and it stuck.

Most plovers are known for site fidelity, meaning they return to the same general areas every spring and fall migration. But Old Man Plover is a true maverick in this department. He’s as loyal to his breeding grounds as he is to his wintering grounds in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Charleston, South Carolina. While no one knows the exact route he takes, Van Zoeren estimates he’s flown 26,640 miles over 15 years. For comparison, the circumference of the Earth is 24,901 miles.

Old Man Plover hatched in Sleeping Bear Dunes in 2002. As a chick, he was banded by the same groups that monitor and preserve the lakeshore habitat today: a coalition of federal, state, tribal and private partners, led by the University of Minnesota. With their efforts, the region’s Piping Plover population has rebounded after dropping to fewer than 20 breeding pairs in the 1980s due to horrible habitat conditions.

In his youth, Old Man Plover would meet up with the same banded female at a specific rendezvous point on the beach each spring. “The two of them were better than GPS” when it came to finding the exact location, says Van Zoeren, who’s worked in the park since the bird first became a father in 2005.

But the past decade hasn’t all been idyllic. Old Man Plover recently lost a pair of mates: his childhood sweetheart in 2011, and then another banded female in 2013 (she was taken down by a Merlin). Plants took over his original nesting spot, and the shoreline he frequents grew narrower due to rising lake water levels. He even lost most of the toes on left foot to an unknown injury.

Yet, as his nickname suggests, Old Man Plover is a stubborn soul. He’s moved about 50 meters north on the beach, found new mates, and has adopted a wobbly walk that leaves a characteristic pin hole in his tracks. All together, he’s successfully fledged 36 chicks. (Not anywhere close to a more famous parent, Wisdom, the Laysan Albatross, but still impressive.) While the average number of fledged chicks in a successful nest is 1.5, Old Man Plover averages three, if not four chicks per season. “He does very well,” says Van Zoeren. “He seldom loses one. I’m sure that he’s well represented in the current population.”

His mighty success rate is a significant mark of the revival of western Lake Michigan. Last spring, 28 out of the 75 Piping Plover pairs in the region nested in Sleeping Bear Dunes. Over the last few years, the population has spread from Michigan to Wisconsin, Illinois, western New York, and southern Ontario. A plover pair even nested on an old Illinois Superfund site that’s in the process of being restored. 

And 2017 is bringing more exciting plover news: Just this past week, a female was spotted on the shores of Lake Erie in Pennsylvania for the first time since the 1980s.

For many in the region, it’s Old Man Plover’s role in the species’ recovery that makes him so special. “As cool as it is that he’s old, he’s also been a good dad,” says Vince Cavalieri, the Great Lakes Piping Plover coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “These older ones gain experience and fledge more chicks. They become champions of the species.”

The Old Man might not know how important he is, but he's probably noticed that he's doing something right. Out in Sleeping Bear Dunes, the bird is at it again, with a new pile of eggs for another season on the lake.

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