It was an unseasonably cool morning on Halloween when Doris and Pat Leary hiked across McClamory Key, a small island off the northwestern side of the Florida peninsula, and discovered a flock of shorebirds. Since 1999, the Florida couple have been monitoring and surveying migrant and wintering Piping Plovers in northeast Florida, and for the past eleven years, along Florida's upper gulf coast. This time they'd found eight Piping Plovers, three of which were banded.
This wasn’t particularly unusual; the Learys have reported plovers at McClamory Key through the years. It wasn’t until they got home and submitted the string of identifying characters from the plovers' ankle bands to Alice Van Zoeren, who runs the database of Great Lakes Piping Plover band numbers, that they understood the magnitude of their discovery. “You've found a really exciting one here!” Van Zoeren wrote in an email. The bird, known as B/OO:X,B for its band sequence, hatched from the first batch of Piping Plover eggs laid in Pennsylvania in 60 years, and had since traveled more than 1,200 miles from the Great Lakes to Florida.
If this seems like a whole lot of excitement over one bird, it’s because B/OO:X,B is a symbol of the decades-long effort to revive the federally endangered species, especially along the Great Lakes. Only around 75 plover pairs currently nest in the Great Lakes, and none have laid eggs along the shores of Lake Erie since 1977—that is, until this summer, when B/OO:X,B’s parents laid dappled eggs in the sand at Gull Point.
B/OO:X,B did not hatch on Lake Erie, though; in June, a storm flooded the beach and nearly washed out the nest. Quick to act, Audubon Pennsylvania’s Mary Birdsong and wildlife biologist Tim Hoppe rescued the eggs, hatched them in captivity, and released them along Lake Michigan in August. (Read the full story of the rescue here.)
The rescue and subsequent hatching made for a dramatic success story—but surviving to young adulthood is just the beginning of a Piping Plover’s journey. Many birds do not survive their first year, and those that do typically have their parents’ help to guide them on their southward migration. So the Leary’s sighting showed that B/OO:X,B, already at a disadvantage, had managed to find a flock and migrate south. (The two other banded birds were from Michigan, where the young plover had been released.)
“There’s so many long odds that it was able to survive at all,” says Vince Cavalieri, the Great Lakes Piping Plover Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “To hear that it is functioning in the wild and down with other Piping Plovers in Florida—it’s very exciting, and it also shows us that our programs are working.”
For decades, conservationists—including professional scientists like Cavalieri, groups like Audubon Pennsylvania, and volunteers like the Learys—have worked to bring Piping Plovers back to beaches along the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes. They’ve cleared vegetation to create the fine-sand beaches preferred by plover parents and designated nesting areas off-limits to keep rowdy beachgoers away from the birds. These efforts have helped: Between 1986, when Piping Plovers were listed as endangered, and 2014, nesting pairs increased from 16 to 70 in the Great Lakes and from 550 to 1,600 along the entire Atlantic Coast.
However, protecting nesting habitat is not enough. Piping Plovers migrate south every winter, and their wintering sites need protecting, too. Currently, where they spend the colder months isn’t well known. In 2011, Audubon scientists discovered that many plovers winter in the Bahamas’ Joulter Cays, but that location is far from exclusive. “The Florida sighting tells us where birds that breed in Pennsylvania may spend the winter,” says Keith Russell, the program manager at Audubon Pennsylvania. “If a Pennsylvania breeding population is to grow, the wintering sites need to be identified and protected.”
And that’s what makes the work of community scientists like the Learys so important. There aren’t enough professional scientists to keep track of birds like B/OO:X,B, and the knowledge gained from sightings is a crucial component of conserving these threatened birds. “Every time you resight a bird, you can piece together the bird’s life, and identify its needs throughout its lifetime,” Julie Wraithmell, the interim executive director of Audubon Florida, says. And in that sense, this newest report adds to other observations, many of which made by the Learys, suggesting that the preservation of certain Florida coastal habitat could be key to the recovery of the Great Lakes' Piping Plovers.
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