Home World Endangered piping plovers return to breed on Lake County beach

Endangered piping plovers return to breed on Lake County beach

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Blaze, a female piping plover, spent the winter in North Carolina. Pepper, a male piping plover, wintered 775 miles away in Florida.

But, in a migration miracle, the federally endangered, captive-reared plovers recently returned within a day of each other to a sandy beach in Lake County where they had been released in July. Aided only by instinct, they flew south for the winter.

This spring, to get to his old Lake County home, Pepper flew more than 1,300 miles, landing there on May 21. Blaze arrived the next day by Pepper’s side, and the two began courting and scraping out sand for a nest site.

Pepper and Blaze, released as young at Illinois Beach State Park last July, rest next to one another after returning to the beach site to start a family this spring. (Photo courtesy of Dan Kirk)
Pepper and Blaze, released as young at Illinois Beach State Park last July, rest next to one another after returning to the beach site to start a family this spring. (Photo courtesy of Dan Kirk)

“This is an amazing migration story,” said Carolyn Lueck, a volunteer plover monitor with the Lake County Audubon Society’s Sharing Our Shore-Waukegan program. “When I saw them, I got chills. I cried.”

The former Chicago resident who lives in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, learned from Brad Semel, endangered species recovery specialist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, that the plovers had returned to near where she helped monitor them in July of last year.

Semel said the plovers returned this spring after facing many challenges, including potential predators and lit buildings at night that can attract migrant birds who sometimes crash into windows and die.

“To think they went down to Florida and North Carolina, and were able to return to the very beach where they had been released is amazing,” he said. “How fitting that the plover returned to the area the very next day after the city of Waukegan named the piping plover its official city bird.”

Meanwhile Sea Rocket, another captive-reared plover released at Montrose Beach in Chicago in July, returned the same day Blaze came back. Sea Rocket wintered in Texas. Semel said Sea Rocket appears to be interested in raising a family with Imani, one of three male piping plovers living on Montrose Beach.

“We are learning amazing things in this grand experiment of trying to save these endangered birds,” he said. “Our part of this research was unique in that it was the first time captive-reared birds had been returned to the wild outside of Michigan.”

Historical nesting and conservation

Up to 800 piping plover pairs once nested annually throughout the Great Lakes region, but by the 1980s that number had dwindled to about a dozen pairs, resulting in the species being placed on the federally endangered list. Reasons for the decline included habitat loss and degradation, predation and human disturbance.

“As a part of the recovery process, conservation efforts are being taken to ensure that every nest has a chance to survive,” Semel said.

The efforts include monitoring the summering and wintering location of the plovers, banding them and raising some that have lost their parents in captivity before releasing them into the wild.

Two captive-reared piping plovers released on this sandy beach in Lake County last July have returned to begin nesting. (Brad Semel/Illinois Department of Natural Resources)
Two captive-reared piping plovers released on this sandy beach in Lake County last July have returned to begin nesting. (Brad Semel/Illinois Department of Natural Resources)

Last year, a record 80 pairs of piping plovers were documented in the Great Lakes region, according to Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team member Stephanie Cabal Schubel.

“Currently we are about eight nests ahead of last year’s numbers, so hopefully on track for at least reaching the 2023 pair numbers,” Schubel said.

Most of the pairs are concentrated in Michigan.

“The return of Blaze and Pepper is very promising so that Illinois can recover the historic distribution of the birds,” Semel said.

Over the past eight years, piping plovers have attempted to nest along Illinois Beach State Park and Waukegan Beach. Some were successful, others were not.

The 7-inch-long adult plover has a sandy-colored back, white breast with black band, orange-yellow legs and an orange bill tipped in black. In July, when Blaze and Pepper were young, they were mostly sandy-colored to blend in with pebbly beaches where the species nest.

The return of Blaze, Pepper and Sea Rocket depended not only on the magic of migration, but also on a team of dedicated volunteers and state officials, Semel said.

The plovers began their lives as eggs laid on a New York beach in the spring of 2023. A merlin, a type of raptor, killed the parent, who had been incubating the eggs. Because a single adult cannot successfully incubate a clutch, the eggs were taken to the Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, where veterinarians hatched and reared the chicks.

Thirty-four days after the chicks hatched, Semel drove from northern Illinois to pick them up in a cat carrier and introduce them to the wild — four at Illinois Beach State Park, and three at Montrose Harbor in Chicago.

Maram, Blaze, Pepper and Sunny, were released in July 2023 at Illinois Beach State Park  after being captively raised in Michigan. Blaze and Pepper returned this year as adults to begin nesting. (Photo courtesy of Matt Tobin)
Maram, Blaze, Pepper and Sunny, were released in July 2023 at Illinois Beach State Park  after being captively raised in Michigan. Blaze and Pepper returned this year as adults to begin nesting. (Photo courtesy of Matt Tobin)

Volunteers at both sites watched and monitored the chicks’ progress until they left in August. One of the chicks was found dead on a Lake County beach in July, but Semel told the volunteers there was at least a 70% chance that those who survived would return the following spring.

“Based on reports for monitors on the plovers’ winter sites, we knew several of the birds were still alive,” he said. “We got a report last week that those birds had left their winter homes. We hoped they would return to Illinois.”

Finding Pepper and Blaze

At 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Semel went out to the Lake Michigan shoreline where he discovered a mixed flock of migratory shorebirds of ruddy turnstones, black-bellied plovers and sanderlings at the south end of Illinois Beach State Park.

“Thick fog was rolling in shrouding the shoreline when I heard the soulful call of a piping plover,” he said. “It came flying in and chased off the shorebirds.”

Semel looked for the bird from a distance with a spotting scope and noted the plover’s unique leg bands.

“I knew it was Pepper,” he said.

Semel returned the next day, and as the sun was rising, he heard not one, but two melodic peeps from the beach. There were two plovers. One was Pepper. The other was Blaze. He watched Pepper digging scrapes in the sand while Blaze checked them out.

“They went through courtship behaviors, and literally have established a territory 20 yards from where they were released last summer,” Semel said.

Lueck and Matt Tobin of Deerfield are leading the monitoring efforts to observe the pair, documenting courtship and egg-laying data and searching for potential predators and other possible disturbances.

Pepper’s great uncle is none other than Monty, one of the famous Chicago pair of plovers, known as Monty and Rose, that attempted to nest in 2018 in Waukegan. The pair became celebrities when they successfully raised young for several years at Montrose Harbor while monitors watched over them.

Meanwhile, the Lake County Audubon Society and the city of Waukegan formed a partnership called Sharing Our Shore-Waukegan. “It was formed to provide public outreach and education about the endangered Great Lakes piping plover and the importance of the Waukegan lakefront and dunal habitat,” Lueck said.

Monty died in May of 2002 and Rose has not returned to Montrose Harbor, but some of their offspring, including Pepper, Monty’s great nephew, live on.

Tobin and Lueck visited the beach on Wednesday to observe Pepper and Blaze from a distance.

“When we got out there, they were resting after their long migratory journey,” Lueck said. “They were sleeping near each other. Later, we watched Pepper make some scrapes in the sand. We watched Blaze checking out those scrapes. In between mating, they took breaks and rested.

“We are going to do everything we can to give them the safest space to have their nests and successfully raise their fledglings,” she said. “This is excellent news for the city of Waukegan. It shows how their efforts to reinvigorate the natural habitat is paying off.”



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