The First Half of 2020 Included Some Good News for Birds

From coast to coast, bird conservationists reported these remarkable migration success stories.

For birders, the time in between spring and fall migration often feels like a time for reflection. The last of the stragglers have moved north and things settle. Given that folks could all use a little good news this year in particular, here is a look back at a historic spring for migratory birds and the people who care for them.

In case you missed some of these hopeful milestones, several are highlighted below:

Plover Lovers in Chicago

Monty and Rose, a pair of Piping Plovers, have returned and hatched chicks on Montrose Beach in Chicago. The pair is part of the federally endangered Great Lakes population, which at one point was down to just 20 pairs but has recovered to 70 pairs thanks to conservation efforts by local stewards. Last year marked the first time that Piping Plovers had nested in Chicago in more than 50 years.

“We were all nervous that Monty and Rose might not show back up this year, so when they did and successfully nested there was just so much joy among the community of people who have fallen in love with them,” says Stephanie Beilke, conservation science manager for Audubon Great Lakes. “A lot of people also think about just how far we've come with restoring Montrose Beach. With Piping Plovers nesting there it just really makes it kind of the cherry on top of a big success story.”

Volunteers who helped out Monty and Rose were organized by the Chicago Ornithological Society, Chicago Audubon Society, and Illinois Ornithological Society to monitor and protect the chicks.

Pelican nesting site restored in Louisiana

The 2010 BP oil spill had detrimental effects on communities and wildlife that depend on a healthy Gulf of Mexico. Queen Bess, an island off the Louisiana coast that serves as a crucial nesting site for eastern Brown Pelicans, was heavily oiled in the disaster. This greatly reduced the amount of land that birds were able to use for nesting, leading to overcrowding and, ultimately minimal reproduction. In response, an $18.7 million effort was put into place to restore the island for nesting Brown Pelicans. Earlier this year, the efforts were completed, the island was declared restored, and pelicans are returning.

“There have been estimates of nearly 8,000 Brown Pelican nests, which is nearly twice as many as in previous years” says Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Louisiana. Further, Johnson added that, in response to Tropical Storm Cristobal, the island “did what it was supposed to do” and held sediment, having “very little effect on the birds of the island.” 

“Louisiana hosts about a third of the eastern Brown Pelican population,” added Johnson, “and Queen Bess is one of the most important nesting islands for Brown Pelicans in the country.” As such, the success of the restoration is great news for the Pelican State and its namesake birds.

Wisdom returns to Midway Atoll

The oldest wild, banded bird, Wisdom, returned to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in Hawai’i this past November. Wisdom is at least 69 years old and, like all Laysan Albatrosses, she spends the bulk of her life out at sea. But each year, she returns to the same spot to nest with her mate, Akeakamai. Although Wisdom did not lay eggs this year, over the course of her life, Wisdom has hatched more than 35 chicks. Wisdom’s continual return is a triumph for migratory birds and reminder of the remarkable journeys they make every year.

New sanctuary in Chile for Red Knots

This past April, Chile’s Minister of the Environment declared Bahía Lomas an official nature sanctuary. The 30-mile stretch of beach serves as a crucial wintering site for Red Knots, Hudsonian Godwits, and other migratory shorebirds. This designation provides protection for these species, many of which have faced increasing pressures from human activities. The overharvesting of horseshoe crabs, for example, has greatly impacted Red Knots, which feed on crab eggs during spring migration. The declaration of this new sanctuary will help ensure that they have a place to overwinter.

Seabirds return to new, temporary home

The South Island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel is typically home to the largest seabird colony in Virginia. So, when the expansion of this roadway threatened to displace the nesting seabirds, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries created a temporary nesting site on Fort Wool. Royal Terns responded almost immediately, with thousands nesting on the island and hatching chicks. Others, such as Common Terns and Black Skimmers, have taken to the barges that were positioned around the island to provide nesting habitat.

Given the fast-paced timing, particularly during a global pandemic, Don Lyons, director of Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, described the project’s success as a “minor miracle.” More importantly, the work is not done yet. Lyons added, “We’re looking forward to assisting the state of Virginia with the development of more permanent nesting site for these seabirds.”

These stories are a testament to the extraordinary journeys that many birds take twice a year. They are also reminder that conservation efforts can have remarkable and measurable impacts that protect birds and the places they need.

As it always does, fall migration will come sooner than we realize. Some shorebirds may be preparing to take off as you read this. However, before we rush out and try to catch a glimpse of our beloved migrants on their way south, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on what an incredible spring migration we just had.