Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An injured plover, an endangered species conundrum

Late last fall we began to hear news in the office about a piping plover that was hanging out unusually late along the shores of southern Lake Michigan.  We first heard about this plover in October when some local birders in Berrien County, MI spotted the bird and noticed that it appeared to be missing its left leg.  Within a few days Tim Baerwald, an active birder in southwest Michigan actually got good enough photos to read the band combination from the metal band that was on the remaining leg.  From this band we learned that this was a male plover that had nested last summer at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Lake Michigan.  The bird was successful in fledging two chicks but was involved in a predation incident involving another one of his chicks.  Soon afterword monitors noticed that he would not place any weight on his left leg, leading to speculation that it may have been injured defending his chicks.  As with all banded birds, their are occassional accidents involving caught bands or other band related injuries that sometimes lead to leg injuries of this kind, but we don't have any direct evidence of that in this case.

Anyway, at first we weren't unduly alarmed.  Other plovers had stayed later in the past and we have other individual plovers missing a foot that have survived and successfully bred for multiple years.  However as October progressed into November and we continued getting reports that the plover was still being seen in and around Warren Dunes St. Park we began to worry.  The bird had not molted out of its alternate plumage, leading to speculation that it was in no condition to attempt the migration to the primary wintering area for Great Lakes Piping Plovers, the southern Atlantic coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  Additionally it was beginning to get colder and colder and we were becoming increasingly concerned the bird would not be able to find enough food to survive.  Finally around veteran's day we decided it was time to attempt a rescue.  Getting the proper permits ready for the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago (who have done piping plover rehab in the past) and arranging for them to take the bird in took a couple days.  When I was finally ready to drive the 2:30 hours down to Berrien County, the plover suddenly disappeared.  It was not seen again for several days, then put in an appearence but then disappeared again.  This time it was not seen for over a week and we had begun to think the bird had either died or attempted to migrate.

Finally the day after Thanksgiving (when there were only a couple other people in the office because of the holiday) I got an e-mail that the plover had been spotted Thankgiving evening (making it the latest record ever of Piping Plover in Michigan).  As there was supposed to be a winter storm brewing we decided it was now or let the plover die, so we decided to attempt to capture the injured plover.  So another biologist who was with our office at the time, Sarah Warner, and I gathered up my mist nets and other gear and drove down to Berrien County.  The very helpful birders who had been spending a lot of their free time monitoring this bird were waiting to help us in the capture attempt.

We were greeted by below zero winds coming off of Lake Michigan but soon spotted the plover, hiding behind the only bit of cover on the beach.

Photo by Charles McKelvy
Due to the supposed condition of the bird, we had speculated that it might be very easy to capture.  Leading me to even bring along a butterfly net, which seems pretty silly now.  It turned out that the plover, though somewhat emaciated, still had his full powers of flight and capture was not easy.

Charles McKelvy, who writies for a local northern Indiana, southwest Michigan newspaper called "The Beacher" tells the whole story here in good style...

http://www.thebeacher.com/pdf/2011/BeacherFeb03.pdf  just scroll down for the whole story, with the added benefit for readers of a goofy picture of me holding a butterfly net (professional wildlife biologist indeed, lol)

Long story short, after much work and a colloborate effort by all the assembled capture team we were able to guide the plover into the mist net.

Me getting the plover out of the mist net, photo by Charles McKelvy

We delivered him to a bird keeper from the Lincoln Park Zoo for continued transportation.  Though as mentioned he was pretty underweight and likely would not have survived in the wild much longer; the plover made a fairly rapid recovery and is currently on display at the zoo.  The main question is what happens to him now?  The humanitarian perhaps says the rescue in and of itself was worth it as it saved the bird from starving or freezing to death on the shores of Lake Michigan.  The conservationist may chime in that he is now a useful education bird, great public outreach to teach zoo visitors about the ongoing conservation work done on the endangered Great Lakes Piping Plover and other imperiled Great Lakes critters.  But what about something more?  Captive breeding perhaps, as the zoo also has a female plover from the Great Lakes population?  Or releasing him back into the wild this spring?  Each choice presents different issues, legal and ethical to ponder.  Captive breeding (as opposed to captive rearing of eggs and chicks taken from the wild after being abandoned which we already do) would change the whole nature of the program, and is very expensive.  And what of the ethical decision to release a crippled bird back into the wild?  Things we continue to ponder, but in the meantime if you are in the Chicago area stop by and say hello to our little plover friend!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Great Lakes Piping Plovers in Canada

As the population of Great Lakes Piping Plover has grown in the last decade they have returned to some former parts of their breeding range that had been abandoned for decades.  This includes some areas in Canada, particularly along the Ontario side of Lake Huron.  The above photo is a bird that nested at Tawas Point St. Park in Michigan last year.  Although this bird was nesting on the Michigan side of the lake, because of its band combination we know it was born on the Canadian side in Ontario.

Recently I was interviewed by a Canadian journalist for an article he was working on about Piping Plovers breeding in the Canadian Great Lakes.  Here is a link to the article