GTPulse: Piping Plovers – Lovers Of Indifference

Right now we’re all cold and the Piping Plover is warm and cozy down by the gulf. The birds that call the shores of Sleeping Bear Dunes home April through August have long been gone, and with it, their summer romances. Not to worry, like a camp crush, they’ll likely run into their nesting partner from the previous year upon their yearly northern return. Not only that, they’re likely to nest with that same partner again too. There is no shortage of fascinating qualities to the Piping Plover, including the summer flings they keep returning to.

Geese, Gray Wolves, Coyotes, and Macaroni Penguins are among the creatures that mate for life. Geese will mourn their partners and will possibly stay widowed after their death, Gray Wolves mate with a partner and the whole family stays together for life, Macaroni Penguins dance when they see each other. These sweet sentiments of love aren’t something that the Piping Plover takes part in. Despite the potential for reconnecting with the same partner summer and summer again, Piping Plovers don’t mate for life. They spend their summer snuggled up to their partner before eventually bailing in favor of a little freedom and tropical temperatures. What brings them to the same partner each year? According to Vince Cavalieri Wildlife Biologist for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore it’s something called sight fidelity.

“They have what we call really strong sight fidelity. Both the male and the female will often return to the exact same beach that they were at the year before. So sometimes they will continuously nest in the same pair. They don’t mate for life or anything like that, it’s more of just a preference for the spot. Because of that sight fidelity, they’ll show up at the same place.”

After a fall and winter spent on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts between Florida and Texas, the endangered shorebirds will travel and spread out to the Great Plains, the Atlantic Coast, and the Great Lakes. They prefer gravelly shores no matter what time of year it is, but it’s especially crucial for them to have a gravel-covered shore during their breeding season.

“They breed on shoreline and winter on shoreline. They always want to be close to the water, they feed at the water’s edge. One thing that’s interesting about Great Lakes Plover is that they’ll only nest on the Great Lakes, they won’t go inland. They like wide beaches with a lot of gravel and pebbles. They use the pebbles to hide their nests right out on open sand because they resemble their eggs.”

When they return to their shores, they look for the place where they nested the year before. Once recognized, it’s the male that chooses the nest site. He courts a female Piping Plover by flying over her and swooping down low to the ground. It’s not unlikely that he courts a female that was his same partner from last season. Although it’s the male’s duty to defend the nest, the female will help him line the inside of it with shell fragments and small stones that will mimic the look of their future loin fruit. Typically she’ll lay three or four eggs.

There are only between 75 to 80 nesting pairs that can be found on the shores of Sleeping Bear Dunes. Its endangered status comes from a loss of habitat, among other things.

“They’re one of the most endangered species in the Midwest in terms of numbers. It’s a mixture of things impacting them, one is habitat loss. A lot of industrial places in the Midwest built up, even certain places in Northern Michigan where people put up cottages and second homes, and it’s recreation too. The Plovers simply get crowded out in populated places.”

Which is why the National Park Service works hard to give them safety and privacy during their time visiting us in Northern Michigan. NPS staff identifies nesting areas and beaches are accordingly closed off to the public when they’re found. It’s not that they’re trying to keep folks from finding them or enjoying their adorable features, it’s just that they’re very easy to accidentally harm. Tiny, Piping Plover eggs can easily be stepped on by human feet that dwarf them in comparison. Leashless dogs have destroyed nests and have harmed Piping Plovers in the process. In a quest for a lush, green world where all living things thrive, delicate things must be treated delicately.

The Plovers arrive here anywhere from the middle of March to the middle of May and stay for three to four months. Both mom and dad work together on incubating the eggs. Together they take turns sitting and keeping their eggs toasty for up to 30 days. After hatching throughout the month of June, the babies will need another 30 days until they’re ready to fly. However, the self-sufficient babes can feed themselves within hours of hatching. Mid-July a crew of females will begin to coordinate their trip back down South, leaving the males to oversee the remainder of flight school for their children. Once the chicks are flying, they fly down South as well, dads too. 

“The pairs don’t appear to winter in the same place. A lot of folks go on winter vacations to Florida or Georgia where the Plovers winter. If they see them there, reporting them to us helps us know where they go in the winter.”

Other things you can do to help keep the Piping Plovers happy and safe is to stay off of beaches that are blocked off, keep your pet on a leash at all times while exploring the Dunes, and picking up trash to keep predators away.

Once the bachelors and bachelorettes are on their wintering grounds, they spend their days hunting for food. They scour tidal flats for marine worms and tiny crustaceans, and when they’re threatened by predatorial raptors, they crouch low and motionless in hopes that it will leave them be. There are both lone plovers and flocks, but you won’t see a cozy pair together until next Spring when they return to their favorite spot to share it with the other half who is sweet on it too, and they’ll do it all over again. I wonder if they catch up.

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Categories: GTPulse