Piping plovers, common terns making conservation history on Presque Isle

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

For the second consecutive year, a pair of federally endangered piping plovers are raising chicks on Presque Isle State Park’s Gull Point.

Further heightening this breaking conservation news is the nesting of a pair of state-endangered common terns on the same beach, maybe the first time both species have nested there since the mid-20th century.

That these nestings have occurred on Gull Point’s 300 or so acres in the easternmost reaches of Presque Isle is gratifying, the Pennsylvania Game Commission said in a news release, adding that much work had gone into making this area, already considered one of Pennsylvania’s best birding areas, even more attractive to nesting shorebirds and avian migrants.

But the forces of nature that helped create Gull Point – erosion and deposition of sand – continually threaten its size and stability. It is a veritable living landmass, fluctuating in size and other ways with each incoming wave, which is why state and national conservation agencies banded together several years ago to eliminate vegetative cover on its shores for the greater good of wildlife, but particularly migratory birds.

That work, involving the Game Commission, state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Army Corps of Engineers, paved the way for breeding piping plovers and common terns to consider once again nesting on Gull Point.

“It’s always gratifying when conservation partners team up for and bring back nesting birds that had been almost wiped out or lost in Pennsylvania’s past,” Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans said. “It’s why we have more nesting bald eagles and ospreys, and more former nesters, such as the peregrine falcon.

“The investment we made to bring back piping plovers and common terns is starting to pay off,” Burhans said. “Now we just have to keep that momentum moving in the right direction.”

In 2017, the plover pair now raising chicks on the beach – identified by leg bands – nested, hatched three piping plover chicks and ultimately raised two, the first Pennsylvania-hatched plovers since the 1950s.

A second plover nest on the same beach had four eggs rescued when strong waves threatened to carry them into Lake Erie. Those eggs hatched two more chicks that were released last August on Lake Superior after being raised at the University of Michigan Biological Station piping plover captive-rearing facility.

Mary Birdsong, assistant director and lead shorebird monitor for Erie Bird Observatory, reported the nesting female plover was first observed May 3. The male was first seen on April 21. She discovered common terns were nesting on the beach May 31.

“It’s extraordinary that both common terns and piping plovers have nested at Presque Isle this year,” said Dan Brauning, Game Commission wildlife diversity division chief. “This has not been documented recently in other Great Lakes states, or in Pennsylvania for decades.”

One of the rarest birds in the Great Lakes region, the piping plover is slightly larger than a sparrow and found in three geographically separated populations: Atlantic Coast and Northern Great Plains (protected as threatened) and the Great Lakes (protected as endangered). The world piping plover population numbers a little over 4,000 pairs.

Common terns haven’t nested regularly in Pennsylvania since 1966.

Common terns haven’t nested regularly in Pennsylvania since 1966. Their breeding populations have declined throughout both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Coast. They are about twice the size of a piping plover.

Shortly after a territorial piping plover male was observed on Gull Point in 2005, the Game Commission, working with DCNR, developed a Presque Isle Piping Plover and Common Tern Partnership aiming to bring back to Pennsylvania both beleaguered species. Other partners include U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Army Corps of Engineers, Audubon Pennsylvania, Erie Bird Observatory and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

A 2007 Pennsylvania piping plover recovery assessment, completed by Cathy Haffner, a Game Commission biologist who has been involved in Great Lakes piping plover recovery efforts since 2001, recommended woody and invasive vegetation removal along the Gull Point Natural Area shoreline to improve recolonization potential, among other strategies.

A USFWS Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant, administered by the Game Commission, enabled the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and DCNR’s Presque Isle State Park to start an annual vegetation-control program within 33 acres of the Gull Point Natural Area in 2011.

“After years of hard work through partnership, coordination, and resource management we have now seen two successful nesting seasons for piping plover at Presque Isle State Park,” said DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. “This season’s successful nest shows that we have made the necessary habitat improvements to not only encourage, but support this and other shorebird species.  We look forward to many years of success and continued partnership with all agencies and organizations involved.”

Never abundant, but still somewhat common within suitable breeding habitat on Great Lakes shorelines in the early 1900s, the Great Lakes piping plover population bottomed out in the late 1980s, when only 17 breeding pairs – confined to Michigan’s shoreline – were recorded.

At one time, Pennsylvania likely hosted up to 15 pairs of piping plovers and roughly 30 pairs of common terns at Presque Isle State Park – the only suitable breeding habitat in the state.

But steep declines in piping plover and common tern populations through the 1940s and ’50s – accompanied by increasing interference from development and human traffic on beaches and predation – endangered their Great Lakes and coastal populations.

“That plovers have nested successfully at Presque Isle State Park two years in a row is a win for the species and speaks to the quality of the habitat,” emphasized Nicole Ranalli, an endangered species biologist for the USFWS’s State College Field Office. “We also are excited that plovers are choosing new sites and expanding their range outside of Michigan. Birds breeding in new locations, such as at Presque Isle, is a step in the right direction for species recovery. All in all, plovers are lucky to have so many people pulling for them; fingers crossed that they return next year!”

Piping plovers are highly vulnerable to disturbance during all phases of the nesting season, because they could leave the area or abandon a nest or chicks. Consequently, the nests are in protected, restricted areas. Disturbance or harassment carries federal and state penalties.

“Birders and lots of others in the community are thrilled about the return of these rare nesting shorebirds,” said Sarah Sargent, Erie Bird Observatory executive director. “We see it as a sign that the partners and the Erie community are doing things right and that our natural systems here are getting healthier for the birds and the rest of us, too.”

The Gull Point restricted areas are designated by signage and fences. Visitors to Gull Point can help the plovers and other shorebirds by respecting the posted restricted area, keeping pets leashed, and leaving nothing behind but footprints. Visitors also are asked not to feed wildlife.

Drones are not allowed at Presque Isle State Park. In addition, the Gull Point Natural Area is closed to human traffic from April 1 to Nov. 30 and boats cannot moor within 100 feet of the Point.

Upon their return to breeding grounds in April and May, both common tern and piping plover males set up and defend nesting territories. During courtship males kick small depressions in the sand called scrapes. The female eventually will use one – often lined with small stones, pieces of vegetation or shell fragments – to lay her eggs, after which the pair will take turns incubating the eggs for about a month.

Once hatched and dry, the plover chicks are up and running, independently feeding on small insects and invertebrates along shallow beach pools and the Lake Erie waterline in close proximity to both parents. Common terns can walk after hatching, but stay in, or close to, the nest and are fed by both parents. Both species are most vulnerable during the first week, after which their chances for survival start to increase. Over the next few weeks, their wings develop and they learn to fly. Until that time, chicks respond to vehicles, predators, and pedestrians by “freezing” and crouching down in the sand to hide, becoming almost perfectly camouflaged.

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