2016 is shaping up to be a groundbreaking year for endangered Great Lakes piping plovers in Lower Green Bay. This summer, for the first time in more than 75 years in Lower Green Bay, piping plovers successfully nested at the newly restored Cat Island Chain and fledged three chicks. Local UW-Green Bay Researcher Tom Prestby, who routinely monitors the site, spotted the nest in late May.
Adult male piping plover from Lower Green Bay showing his support for the Green Bay Packers with green and yellow leg bands. Photo courtesy of Joel Trick.
"Piping plovers have used the site increasingly since it was created, including multiple males throughout the summer of 2015 but they were unsuccessful attracting a mate. We knew breeding was likely if a female found them and we’re pleased that it happened this year," Prestby explains.
Piping plovers once nested on the wide beaches of sand and cobble along the shores of all the Great Lakes. Loss of habitat caused numbers to dip below 20 pairs in the Great Lakes before the small shorebird was listed as endangered in 1986. One estimate puts the Wisconsin piping plover population at 75 to 95 breeding pairs in the 19th century. Green Bay has regularly been an important migratory stopover site for the endangered piping plover and with the rebuilding of the Cat Island Chain it is now able to support nesting piping plovers. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is currently their only regular nesting location within Wisconsin.
In recent decades, Great Lakes piping plovers have been spotted migrating in both spring and fall along Green Bay shorelines. However, there have only been a few recorded nesting attempts dating back to the mid-1900s in Door, Marinette, and Oconto Counties; only the nest in Oconto County was successful. Monitoring has unfortunately been sporadic throughout much of the last century.
Since being listed as endangered, conservationists have worked tirelessly to save this rare bird from extinction by preserving and restoring habitat, protecting nesting areas and monitoring the birds’ migrations. In the Great Lakes this season, 75 active nests were located, most of them in Michigan, a significant number for a species that was nearly extirpated by the 1980s.
"Piping plovers are the most endangered species in the Great Lakes," explains Charlie Wooley, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Deputy Regional Director. "It’s been an honor in my career to see this remarkable bird come back from the brink of extinction. It reflects the hard work of many and is just another example of successful fish and wildlife restoration efforts across the Great Lakes."
In Wisconsin, local, state, and federal partners are contributing to plover recovery by working to restore plover habitat in Green Bay. In 2012, after nearly 25 years of planning, the Brown County Port and Resource Recovery Department began reconstruction of the Cat Island chain in Lower Green Bay.
During extremely high water levels in the mid-1970s, a series of severe storms during ice breakup resulted in catastrophic erosion and ice damage to the islands. While some of the remnant islands and wetland habitat still remain, the goal of the project is to reconstruct the 272-acre Cat Island Chain that includes a 2.5-mile long wave barrier and provides habitat.
Funding for construction has been provided through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a Wisconsin DOT Harbor Assistance Program grant, Fox River Natural Resources Damage Assessment settlement funds, and revenues collected by the Port of Green Bay from port facility operators.
Following construction, biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WI DNR), and other partners assisted with habitat management at the site. "The plovers nested in a newly created area of open sand habitat with small rock cobble and scattered pockets of vegetative cover near the waterline," notes Service biologist Gary VanVreede. "It is the type of site the plovers use for nesting activities in other areas of the Great Lakes. We plan to manage for more of this type of habitat at Cat Island in the future."
"The Army Corps of Engineers will continue to fill the islands over the next 20 to 30 years with clean dredge material from the maintenance of the Green Bay Harbor," states Mark Walter, Business Development Manager with Brown County Port and Recovery. "This project has truly been a win-win for both the county and local conservation partners." Along with piping plover, this same habitat also benefits more than 30 species of other Great Lakes shorebirds.
In early July, biologists from the University of Minnesota, WI DNR, and the Service banded the Cat Island plover chicks. Leg bands in specific color combinations help identify and track the birds. Local biologists were asked to select a band color combination specific to Green Bay. "There was no question," states Prestby, "we had to choose green and gold since you can see Lambeau Field in the distance from their nest."
The adults migrated in late July and juveniles depart in early August. Many Great Lakes piping plovers have already been spotted on their wintering grounds in Florida, Georgia and other Gulf and Atlantic Coast states, joining plover populations from the Atlantic Coast and Great Plains. As the birds head south, the Service is asking birdwatchers and others to report any sightings of piping plovers, especially plovers with colored leg bands.
"The fact that we are just at the beginning of this restoration project and wildlife are already returning to use this area is a great sign," says Josh Martinez, a DNR Green Bay-based wildlife biologist working on the restoration project: "We’re happy to be part of this partnership and know there will be many more great wildlife successes to come."
Due to being an active construction site, the Cat Island Chain is currently closed to the public. Limiting disturbance at the site is also critical for the success of both piping plover and other breeding migratory birds.
Anyone who spots a piping plover can contact Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Coordinator Vince Cavalieri by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or the University of Minnesota Research Team at email@example.com.
Information about the piping plover and the color bands is available at the University of Minnesota’s website at http://www.waterbirds.umn.edu/pip_banded.html. For more information on piping plovers and how to help them, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website at http://midwest.fws.gov/endangered/pipingplover.