On a warm Friday afternoon in early June, Mandy Roberts could hardly believe what she was seeing through her camera. “Something is about to happen!” she called out to friend and volunteer monitor Julie Heitz on watch nearby. “Something is happening!”
Seconds later, Nellie, a female Piping Plover, laid her fourth and final egg as Roberts, Heitz, and a few other birders watched in wonder before bursting into laughter and high fives. Nearby beachgoers, curious to know what the fuss was all about, soon learned that they were in the presence of celebrities: Nellie and her partner, Nish, are the first Piping Plovers to nest in Ohio in 83 years.
The week before, local birders Karen and Warren Leow reported seeing three Piping Plovers on Maumee Bay State Park’s busy Lake Erie shore near Toledo. Experts at Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO), a local nonprofit focused on combining research and education for bird conservation, watched and waited for confirmation of breeding behavior, which would indicate the birds weren’t just migrating through the area. Leg bands revealed that all three birds were 2020 hatchlings and part of the federally endangered Great Lakes population. The male was banded on Montrose Beach in Chicago, Illinois, and the two females were from Presque Isle in Pennsylvania.
Within a few days of their arrival, Nish, who was named when he hatched the year before, began to perform the Piping Plover’s characteristic courtship display. Standing upright, he paraded about with high goose steps as he attempted to woo the newly named Nellie. Much to the delight—and entertainment—of hopeful observers, he eventually won her over. Once the two mated, the conservation community quickly rallied to protect the birds and their potential nest.
“We knew that the birds were intending to nest here, and at that point Black Swamp Bird Observatory just sprang into motion,” says Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the observatory. The BSBO team contacted authorities including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and Maumee Bay State Park officials to notify them of the confirmed courtship behavior. State and federal officials visited the area to verify and assess the situation. However, due to the shore’s vastness, the agencies had to wait to set up a protected area until knowing the precise location of an official scrape, the shallow depression Piping Plovers create in the sand for their nest.
In case the birds did successfully nest, the Ohio Division of Wildlife and USFWS asked BSBO to be responsible for managing a volunteer monitoring program. BSBO agreed to take on the task, and a few days later the nest was confirmed. The USFWS then erected a barrier around a large section of an inland beach adjacent but separated from the Lake Erie coast. Interestingly, Nish and Nellie had chosen a nesting area unaffected by fluctuating lake water levels from storm surges, potentially providing a safer environment for the eggs. (The first pair of Piping Plovers to return to Chicago in more than 50 years dealt with flooding issues in 2019.)
That evening, Kaufman documented the first Piping Plover egg being laid in Ohio since the 1930s. The next day, the agency installed a wire predator guard, called an exclosure, over the nest to protect the eggs. Nellie laid the celebrated fourth egg just five days later, resulting in a full clutch, and the birds began officially incubating.
Finding volunteer monitors turned out to be easy. Within the first week of BSBO posting its online sign-up, more than 100 people had volunteered. “Everyone rallied around these birds,” says Kaufman. “It’s just been the most incredibly intense but wonderful experience.”
The volunteer monitoring effort, essentially a massive community science project, is a critical component and serves as the “eyes and ears” for the USFWS, says Mark Shieldcastle, research director at BSBO. By watching the birds in shifts and documenting their behavior, people learn to differentiate what is normal and what may be a sign to reach out to authorities. The agency can then make more informed decisions to aid in the pair's success.
Monitors are already noticing patterns during incubation. While Nish and Nellie alternate almost hourly throughout the day, taking turns sitting on the four speckled eggs, Nish tends to take over for a five hour stretch every evening. Nellie usually incubates alone overnight. Also, Nish doesn’t seem to mind leaving the nest unattended more frequently during his shift while he snacks nearby or to scare away Killdeer venturing too close.
The monitors also provide outreach and education to the public, garnering much-needed support. “Educating the public is really important because we closed off a major portion of the beach and they need to know why,” says Jack Burris, a volunteer who pulled a 12-hour shift the first day while plans were still getting set up. “The birds are critically endangered, and it’s because of humans. We’ve taken away their habitat, so they’ve chosen some of our habitat, and we’re going to let them have it.”
The Great Lakes population of Piping Plovers was officially listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1986, when fewer than 20 pairs remained, all within Michigan. (The Great Plains and Atlantic populations are currently listed as threatened.) Historically, there were an estimated 500-800 pairs across the region. Numbers began declining in the early 1900s with human hunting and development, and in the latter half of the century, beach recreation, habitat degradation, and predation have continued to threaten the species' chances of survival.
From only 30 pairs in the Great Lakes population in 2000, the number grew to 76 by 2017.
But since being listed, the breeding population of the Great Lakes Piping Plovers has increased to about 60-80 pairs, largely thanks to the hard work of the organizations on the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team. From only 30 pairs in the Great Lakes population in 2000, the number grew to 76 by 2017, the highest number recorded since the program started. This year, 72 unique pairs have already been identified—8 more than 2020—and nests have been documented in Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Ontario.
“It’s very exciting,” says Jillian Farkas, Great Lakes Piping Plover Coordinator for the USFWS. Farkas credits the program's success to monitoring and protection efforts, predator management, community support, and the captive rearing program, which is crucial in supplementing the wild population.
Ensuring the return of new pairs to their first-year nesting sites is also vital; a pair of Piping Plovers is more likely to return to the same location if their nest is successful. "Every bird matters," Farkas says. "So anything we can do to try to increase their success and make it as easy as we can and hope for their return after the wintering season we try to do."
As for Nish and Nellie, if all goes well, their eggs are expected to hatch around the 4th of July. “Things are going to get real squirrely for awhile, because at that point they can move wherever they want to,” says Shieldcastle, in reference to the fledglings, which he describes as “kind of like a puffball on toothpicks running around.”
Until then, volunteers will continue monitoring the pair and their nest from sunrise to sunset. New friendships are forming among the dedicated group, and the larger community seems to have fallen in love with their new residents.
Reflecting on the effort so far, Kaufman hopes this experience eventually creates a bigger impact. “Something that always strikes me in a situation like this where you have an individual bird or a pair of birds is how they inspire and motivate people,” she says. “If we can generate this much support and excitement for two birds, we should be able to do that for birds on a much larger scale.”