Photography by Alice Van Zoeren
The Great Lakes population of piping plovers is critically endangered. The species joined the federal Endangered Species List In 1986 when the population plummeted to only 18 pairs.
Piping plovers need both parents to survive. One finds food while the other warms the nest. Without both, the nest will be abandoned.
Perhaps the most important part of the ongoing recovery effort is the captive-rearing program in which abandoned eggs are incubated, hatched and the chicks are raised and released.
Eggs from a deserted nest are transported to the University of Michigan Biological Station and cared for by professional zookeepers who come from all over the US.
After about 28 days of incubation, the eggs hatch. The chicks can run and feed themselves within hours. For their first days they live indoors.
Once old enough to spend their days in a lakeside cage, the chicks learns to find food and get used to life on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Now 30 days old, the chicks are ready to be released. Four chicks wait quietly in a box during a road trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
It’s time for them to join a flock of wild-raised plover chicks on the beach. As the box is tipped, they get their first look at Lake Michigan.
The bravest chick leaves the box... no turning back now!
Soon they’re together on the beach. They lose no time in beginning to look for food, and finding it.
The unique combination of color-bands on their legs allows researchers to recognize them later.
Plover chicks instinctively flatten themselves into the sand for camouflage as protection from danger. This chick is frightened by its first encounter with a “big” shorebird...a lesser yellowlegs.
Within hours, they integrate into the flock of wild-raised plover chicks. Numerous partners have helped the population grow to 63 pairs today.
Only 20% - 30% survive the annual migration to the Gulf Coast. Although the return rate is low, each plover’s return increases the population of this endearing shorebird.