Mary Birdsong knelt on the floor of the boat as it skipped atop the choppy waters of Lake Erie. Using her legs as shock absorbers, she did all she could to cushion the blows caused by the jarring waves, determined to protect the box she clasped in her hands. The contents of the box, which wildlife biologist Tim Hoppe had just scooped from the rising surf along the shoreline, were priceless: Piping Plover eggs.
The dramatic rescue by Hoppe and Birdsong, an aptly named Audubon shorebird monitor, punctuated years of work by Audubon Pennsylvania and its partners that have resulted in a major conservation victory. For the first time since the 1950s, Piping Plovers have nested in Pennsylvania. What's more, not one, but two pairs of the birds decided to nest on Gull Point, located at the eastern end of the thin peninsula that makes up Presque Isle State Park, an Audubon Important Bird Area. Presque Isle historically hosted up to 15 pairs of the birds, but degraded habitat, throngs of beachgoers, and a general population decline throughout the Great Lakes region kept plovers from nesting there.
“I almost get choked up about it, because when I started working directly with Piping Plovers in 2001, the whole population in the Great Lakes was around 30 pairs,” says Cathy Haffner, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission who coordinates the state’s plover recovery efforts. Listed as threatened along the Atlantic coast and in the Great Plains, the birds are critically endangered in their Great Lakes range, with just 75 nesting pairs, most of them in Michigan. The last nest found on Lake Erie was in Ontario, Canada, in 1977. “People’s dedication to these birds has brought us to this day,” Haffner says.
Bringing plovers back to the peninsula has taken a lot of work, and Audubon has been a key partner throughout. Its main role in the effort has been as the “eyes in the field” since 2009, with Birdsong and other monitors providing daily updates on bird sightings and activity to all the agencies involved, says Sarah Sargent, Audubon Pennsylvania's bird conservation program manager. Audubon monitors noted, for instance, a tripling of the shorebird population at Gull Point after groups removed invasive plants and other vegetation taking over the sandy beach habitat that plovers and other shorebirds need.
Migrating plovers have occasionally stopped at Gull Point in recent years, but not for long. Last year, a bird whose leg bands identified him as a young male from Michigan stayed long enough to perform display flights aimed at attracting a female. No dice. But this year, the same bird returned and attracted a mate. Then another male arrived, and he too wooed a lady plover. Soon there was a pair of nests at Gull Point, one with three eggs and one with four.
Since the discovery, Birdsong has been keeping a close eye on the nests, which were kept secret for fear of possible human disturbance. She was thrilled to see the three eggs in the first nest hatch on June 25. But later that day, strong winds whipped up Lake Erie and swamped the nests. Two of the young hatchlings from the first nest, able to walk after just a few hours, escaped the rising waters. Birdsong isn’t sure what became of the third; she was too focused on contacting Haffner to alert her that the nest full of eggs was being washed away.
Soon state game commission biologist Hoppe arrived by boat, gathered up the eggs, and packed them carefully in a container. Within 24 hours of their boat ride, the eggs were sitting in an incubator at the Detroit Zoo. They were then moved to a captive-rearing facility in northern Michigan, where two chicks hatched successfully and will be released along Lake Michigan in August.
As important as the surviving chicks are to the Great Lakes Piping Plover population overall, the more notable news by far is that these birds are finally back nesting at Gull Point, Haffner says. “This didn’t happen by accident,” she says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my gosh we have plovers, what do we do?’ It was like, ‘Oh sweet, we’re ready for this!’”
Although the monitoring program began in the past decade, Audubon has been involved in preserving Gull Point since the 1990s. The local chapter—the Presque Isle Audubon Society—is reponsible for originally spearheading the successful campaign to designate Gull Point as a natural area in 1994, a year after a male was spotted there trying to attract a mate. Presque Isle is one of the country’s most popular parks, with about four million visitors crowding its beaches and trails each year. The natural area designation has helped to keep the crowds from disturbing Gull Point, which is closed annually to the public from April 1 to November 30, except for a trail and observation platform.
The designation was good for shorebirds and other wildlife, but not everyone was pleased. Some recreational users wanted continued access to all of Presque Isle, and Audubon member Jerry McWilliams—a vocal proponent of protecting Gull Point—had his tires slashed during the '94 campaign. But more than two decades later, his leadership and dedication were rewarded when the partners in the plover restoration effort dubbed one of the nesting males "Jerry" in his honor.
Now that Gull Point’s protected status has paid off, Sargent says she hopes Piping Plovers will continue to nest there each year. Meanwhile, she wants residents of nearby Erie and everyone in Pennsylvania to take pride in the bird’s return to the Keystone State.
“For some of us, this is a really big deal,” she says. “It has been a long-term project. And you know, we figured eventually they’d come back—maybe—but maybe not in our lifetime. It’s very exciting for us.”