Leelanau Summer Tourist Update: Piping Plovers Return

Banded Piping Plover by James Eye View Photography

The beaches of Leelanau are an important breeding location for the endangered piping plover The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s awesome Piping Plover page will help you keep our feathered friends safe & tell you more about these beach-loving birds. Here’s a bit of it:

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is an endangered shorebird. They are sand-colored on the back and white below. During the breeding season, adults have a black forehead band between the eyes and a single black band around the neck. Its larger relative, the killdeer, is commonly seen at parks, playgrounds, and golf courses, and has two dark bands around the neck. Piping plovers nest only on beaches and prefer beaches with gravel. There are three small populations: one in the Great Plains, one on the Atlantic Coast, and one here in the Great Lakes. They winter together on the Gulf Coast but travel to the separate areas during the breeding season. Both the Great Plains and the Atlantic Coast populations are federally listed as “threatened” species. It is a special opportunity to be able observe the Great Lakes population of piping plovers since there are only between 75 and 80 nesting pairs in the entire Great Lakes area.

Piping plovers can be found at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore from early April through mid-August. They return in April and early May after spending the fall and winter months on the Atlantic Coast and on the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Piping plovers remain here through the summer to nest and raise their young. In mid-July the females begin forming flocks and migrating south, leaving their mates to watch over the chicks until they learn to fly.

Once the chicks are independent in late July the males and chicks also begin to leave Sleeping Bear Dunes. By late August they have all left for their winter homes. We won’t see them again here until the next April … The areas around the nests are roped off during the breeding season to protect the birds from disturbances that would cause them to abandon their nests. Also, plover eggs and small chicks are very well camouflaged. Well-meaning plover watchers could easily step on them if allowed in the nesting area.

However, it is possible to observe all aspects of plover behavior from outside the plover-protection fences. Because piping plovers are well camouflaged, you might need to watch for a while before you see them. It also helps to keep your ears open. They often peep (or pipe), and you may hear one before you see one. If you hear a plover, freeze and look around for movement.

Nesting piping plovers can be seen at various locations on the mainland. Historically, notable nesting areas have been Platte Point and Sleeping Bear Point. For many years, the location with the most nests has been on North Manitou Island. Their nesting area on the island is entirely closed to the public from mid-April to August 15.

With this intensive program, the number of Great Lakes nesting plovers has risen from only 17 pairs in 1986 to 76 pairs in 2017. On average, Sleeping Bear Dunes usually has one third of all pairs but in 2017, the Lakeshore was home to 41 pairs: that’s 54% of the entire breeding population!

Plover Behaviors to Watch from late April through Early June

Flight displays – Males begin displaying when they first return in order to establish their territories and to attract a female to join them. They fly over their chosen territory with quick, stiff wing beats, peeping constantly.

Territory defense – Both males and females engage in territory defense. They walk shoulder to shoulder along the boundary with the birds from the adjacent territory. Sometimes they lower their heads, puff up their back feathers, and charge at a trespassing bird.

Scraping – Males lay on their chests and scrape out nest sites by kicking backwards with their legs.

Incubation and trading incubation duties – Both parents participate equally in incubating (sitting on the eggs). When it is time to trade duties one bird runs quickly to the nest and the other then runs away.

Feeding – Plovers spend much of their day eating insects, spiders, and other small creatures.

PLEASE! Respect roped off areas, leash your pets & if you see anyone harassing piping plovers please report it to Sleeping Bear Dunes Headquarters at 231-326-5134.  Read lots more from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore!