Making a Home in the Strangest of Places

A pair of Great Lakes Piping Plovers is nesting successfully—on an Illinois Superfund site.

A 350-acre Superfund site along Lake Michigan, containing a million tons of asbestos waste and other environmental horrors, doesn’t sound like a great place to raise a family. But after remediation work on the site cleaned up some of the contaminants, a pair of federally endangered Piping Plovers moved in and started raising a family. The move is one more step in the species’ resurgence in the Great Lakes region, and indicates that the birds may be staging a comeback.

The two Piping Plovers currently making their home on the John Manville asbestos disposal area located in Waukegan, Lake County, Illinois, are locals. They were hatched and fledged (and banded by scientists) just a mile away from the disposal area, then migrated south for the winter. Now they’ve returned, and together with another pair of plovers, are raising seven chicks.

But why a Superfund site? The remediation of the site has created mud flats and little shallow pools, and it is off limits to the public, making it the ideal habitat for the plovers. “I think the combination of having a lot of open space, being right against the shore, and having this impromptu habitat that’s been created by the bulldozers has made it perfect for them,” says Nathaniel Miller, director of conservation at Audubon Great Lakes.

Even workers at the site are protecting the young by putting up a silk fence so that the birds don’t accidentally run into the construction. This also helps shield them from predators that include dogs and raccoons.

The two-ounce, seven-inch shorebirds were once on a path to extinction. In 1981 there were only 17 pairs left nesting on the Great Lakes. In 1986 the species received protection under the Endangered Species Act. But conservation efforts and habitat protection programs have helped bring the total number of plovers to 72 pairs this year.

This is the first time since the species was listed as endangered that the Great Lakes Piping Plover population has increased three years in a row, mostly due to work done by dedicated volunteers and professionals, Miller explains. “Plovers rely on really particular habitats: these open areas and sandy areas close to the water, and that’s also the places that people like, so they’ve lost a lot of habitat. That’s been the major driver of their population decline,” Miller adds.

Finding the nests and protecting them from heavy machinery such as sand graders, and protecting the nesting sites so that birds have a habitat to return to, are the types of conservation actions that have driven a positive impact on the Piping Plover population, says Miller.  

But part of the recovery efforts also hinges on educating the public about how the plovers are returning to nest in Illinois, says Brad Semel, a biologist with Illinois’ Division of Natural Heritage who discovered the plovers back in May. Semel has monitored and protected the endangered population for many years and is happy to see the young birds—responsible for settling and establishing territory—once again choose the Great Lakes region as a nesting site. “There can be recreational use of the beach, but people should be respectful of the Piping Plover nesting season,” Semel says.

Update: In an earlier version, we incorrectly stated that Piping Plover received federal protections in 1985, when it really happened in 1986.

Learn more about the Great Lakes plovers with the interactive map below.