This summer I had the opportunity to visit one of the projects we support through our Bird Protection Fund: the banding of federally endangered piping plover chicks near Green Bay, Wisconsin.
As we drove out to the Cat Island Restoration Project site north of Green Bay, egrets, kingfishers and yellow-headed blackbirds flew alongside the car while flocks of pelicans and a raft of common terns were visible offshore. This area is vitally important for migrating birds and has one of the highest concentration of shorebirds in the entire state. The ongoing effort at Cat Island will reconstruct three islands in the lower bay, providing hundreds of acres of critical wildlife habitat.
Figure 1. A piping plover chick after being banded. Photo: Joel Trick
The piping plover, a small shorebird, is one of 11 state endangered birds in Wisconsin. Piping plovers used to nest on the shores of all of the Great Lakes, but due to loss of habitat, recreational pressure and predation their populations have significantly declined. By 1948, only one pair of piping plovers was known to still nest in Wisconsin. One of the major threats to plovers is the availability of suitable nesting habitat – they require large, isolated, cobble beach and dunes to nest. Once this ideal type of nesting habitat was restored near Green Bay, the piping plovers re-appeared on their own in 2016, after a 75-year absence. Green Bay is now the second plover nesting site in Wisconsin, with a third being established on Lake Superior.
The goal of the work here at Cat Island is to create additional breeding habitat, protect the existing nesting sites, and band all of the piping plover chicks. Because piping plovers are both a federally and state endangered species, there are many partners involved in this effort – the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and local groups like the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay support conservation, management, research and monitoring.
Figure 2. A DNR biologist carefully bands a piping plover chick following protocol established by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Photo: Caitlin Williamson
The recovery goal for piping plovers in the Great Lakes Region is 150 pairs; last year, there were nearly 70 pairs documented. Conservation efforts have been slow but steady, with plover chicks being produced every year for the last decade. To help monitor Wisconsin’s piping plover population all chicks are outfitted with bands, which allows researchers to track the birds’ migratory routes, the habitats they use and their survivorship, as well as measure Wisconsin’s contribution to the recovery of the piping plover in the Great Lakes region.
At the site, the partner groups assembled and carefully ‘rounded up’ the piping plover chicks, placing them in soft cloth bags until they were banded. They were outfitted with unique combinations of metal and color bands on their legs, which helps biologists readily tell where and when the birds were banded. Once released, the biologists monitored them to make sure no chicks were injured during the process. The chicks then sped along back to their nest, while the adults, which had been circling overhead throughout the process, quickly reunited with their chicks. It was wonderful to get to see these beautiful, rare birds in person, and to get to meet the amazing people who are making this recovery possible.
Figure 3. NRF’s director of conservation programs, Caitlin Williamson, carefully holds a piping plover chick while waiting for the chicks to be banded. Photo: Betsy Galbraith
Bird Protection Fund
This conservation effort is just one of many high priority projects funded by the Bird Protection Fund each year. The Bird Protection Fund, a partnership between the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, supports the highest priority conservation needs for Wisconsin’s birds. The largest source of donations is the Great Wisconsin Birdathon fundraiser event. Since it was established, the Bird Protection Fund has provided more than $1 million to bird conservation efforts in Wisconsin, including the recovery of the federally endangered whooping crane, supporting research and monitoring efforts and funding the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas citizen science project.