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Author and scientist Loreen Niewenhuis heads to North Manitou Island to monitor the summer gathering of piping plovers.

Featured in the July 2019 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy. 

“You must be Alice,” I say to the woman already on the boat with the park rangers. “I’m your volunteer for the week.”

Alice Van Zoeren is the naturalist hired by Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to help watch over the endangered Great Lakes piping plovers on North Manitou Island. This shorebird is smaller than a robin and slightly bigger than a chickadee. It is the color of sand on its back with a white belly. Adults have a black band around their necks and a black slash on their forehead like a unibrow.

Alice is a small woman dressed all in khaki. She blends into the neutral colors of the boat. I think I might lose her when we get out on the dunes.

The captain points the boat toward Dimmick’s Point at North Manitou Island’s southeast corner. When we get close, the rangers pull down an inflatable rowboat and slide it overboard. Alice scrambles out of the cabin and begins lowering supplies onto the boat. By the time I get into the rowboat, it’s jam-packed with jugs of fresh water, Alice’s pack, Alice and now me and my pack.

“You’re on the rowing side,” Alice says, the disappointment in her voice telling me that she had wanted to row us ashore.

“I’m happy to row,” I smile, determined to be a delightful volunteer, to go beyond her expectations.

When we bump into the shallows, a young guy pulls us onto the beach and helps unload our gear. Then he jumps in and rows to the ranger boat. I just witnessed the shift change on the island.

The piping plovers are monitored from the moment they arrive in April through July when the new chicks are fully fledged and able to fly south. A comfortable camp was established near the nesting area for the people watching over them.

“Stow your things and we’ll check on the birds,” Alice says, anxious to get to work. Determined to be a delightful volunteer, I stow my pack, grab the other spotting scope and follow her. The entire southeast point of the island is restricted while the piping plovers are nesting. Signs along the beach warn hikers to keep out.

Alice stops and pulls a radio out of her vest. “We need to call in to dispatch. They don’t know your name, so I’ll just call you ‘the volunteer.’”

“Delightful volunteer,” I say raising my eyebrows to no response from Alice.

Once she called us in, Alice walks slowly at the edge of the water, attuned to every sound and sight and track in the sand. I almost trample her. As a long-distance hiker, once I get near the water I want to get the miles rolling beneath my boots. I put a buffer zone between us and am glad I did because she soon stops completely, opens the tripod on her scope in one fluid movement and had sighted and identified several birds before I reached her side.

“That’s the male from West Two nest, OYB:XL and he’s with two of his chicks,” she says. She pulls out a complicated data sheet used to keep track of the birds. She records the sightings, then hands me one of the sheets. We are charged with locating, identifying and monitoring all the piping plovers on the point. And there are dozens of birds counting the adults and newly hatched chicks.

All birds banded in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore have an orange flag on the top of their left leg (a plastic band with a little tag on it) and a metal band on the top of their right leg. On their ankles, they have bands that identify each individual bird. Usually these bands are a single color. Sometimes—just to keep it interesting—the bands are striped. The color code for each bird can be verbalized: “O, little b, X, bob.” This meant that on the bird’s left leg, he has an orange flag (O), on that ankle is a light blue band (little b). On its other leg is a metal band (X) plus one of the striped bands, light blue and orange (bob is blue-orange-blue).

If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

And the birds constantly dart around on their twiggy legs making it difficult to decipher the color-coding. All of the colors of the bands are needed to identify a bird.

PIPING PLOVER POPULATION

The Great Lakes piping plover population was at a low of only 13 nesting pairs in the 1980s. With conservation efforts (involving professionals at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan Biological Station), that number has rebounded to around 70 nesting pairs today.

Learn more about this resilient Great Lakes bird at greatlakespipingplover.org.

We stroll to the edge of the sandy point. Alice stops every few steps, scopes the birds, quickly identifying them and moving on often before I have my scope adjusted properly.

“I hate it when the stones align to look exactly like piping plovers,” I mutter into my scope later on the third day.

“Well. That’s kind of the point,” Alice says. “They live a life of camouflage. Oh, we need to check a nest. They’re due to hatch.”

Alice shoulders her scope and begins the agonizingly slow walk over the low dunes. The researchers protect each nest by putting a cage over it. The birds can get in and out to tend the eggs, but predators—like coyotes—are kept out. This single measure has almost tripled the hatching success of these rare eggs.

Alice adroitly identifies several more birds on the way to the nest. She notes that one chick is still hopping on one leg. “We call him Hoppy,” she deadpans. The little bird moves quickly even while bouncing on one leg.

Piping plover chicks begin feeding on their own right after hatching; they are precocial as opposed to altricial (altricial species are those in which parents need to feed the chicks, as with robins). Piping plover chicks run around chasing bugs minutes after hatching.

We finally get close to the nest. I set up my scope alongside Alice and focus on the male plover sitting on the nest.

“He’s not acting like the eggs are hatching yet,” Alice says.

“How do they act?”

“They look surprised.”

Back at camp that evening, I try to break the ice by asking questions. “What’s your favorite bird?”

“The piping plover.”

I regroup. “What was the most fascinating bird you’ve ever seen?” I crossed my fingers that it wasn’t the piping plover again.

“I once saw a Great Shearwater here. Along the mainland.” Alice looks at the perched dunes along the shoreline. I let the silence draw the story out of her. “It’s not normally found here. A hurricane blew it off course, off the Atlantic.” She pauses, remembering. “It was windy and rainy here, not the best time to be out birding.” A small smile showed briefly on her face, then fades. “I was the only one to see it alive. By the time others got there, it had died.”

“Because of the storm?”

“Probably. It wasn’t acting normally when I saw it. They are usually powerful in flight. I’d love to see one out over the Atlantic sometime.”

A screeching in the treetops breaks the moment. Alice looks at me. “Monkeys!” I say with an impish grin.

“It’s a red-eyed vireo upset with the blue jays.”

I am astonished that she got all of that from a few screeches. “Blue jays are bullies.”

“And they’ll eat the chicks of other birds,” Alice adds.

“And there’s that,” I concede to the expert.

During my days on the island I learn to walk slowly, to adjust my tripod without wrestling it, to sight birds at a distance, then quickly bring them into focus with my scope. I learn to be still.

On the final morning, I wake before sunrise to accompany Alice on her pre-dawn walk. She did this every morning, but assured me I didn’t have to accompany her. It was not part of the volunteer job, this up-before-the-sun stroll.

“I’d like to. At least once. Maybe the last day?” I half-plead. She didn’t approve, but she didn’t forbid it. So, on that last morning when I hear her stirring, I shoulder my scope and follow her toward the shoreline. There is barely enough light to make out the sandy pathway bordered with dune grasses and poison ivy.

At the lakeshore, she reads the events of the night, the history of the darkness. She points to some tracks: paws digging into the soft sand on either side of a thick tail. I know this one: otter.

We walk slowly toward the end point of land, that sandy hook reaching out into Lake Michigan.

“Why don’t you stay here and look for the third unbanded chick?” It wasn’t really a question. She was dropping me here to keep me from trampling her.

I set up my scope so I can sit on the dune and sight up the point in search of three tiny birds I could easily have balanced together on one palm. They were so newly hatched that they hadn’t been banded yet. In a few minutes the top of the sun crests above the lake and there is enough light to find one of the birds darting about at the top of the waves. Its sibling joins it a few minutes later.

The challenge of finding the third chick was to keep track of the two I had already found while scanning the area for the third. If another chick appeared apart from the two, it was essential to quickly locate the first two to make sure the third wasn’t actually one of the first two that had just wandered. I do this for the next hour as the sand begins radiating the sun’s warmth. Alice appears at my elbow, startling me. “I think a coyote got most of the chicks from West Six’s nest,” she says. “I saw tracks. Tracks, then a pounce.”

“No,” I say. I had seen one of the chicks when it was still wet from hatching. I was the first person to see it, this endangered bird on the brink of extinction, hatched into existence on this wild island. Such hope running around on toothpick legs, a puffball of energy and ancient migration maps.

“Did any survive?”

“I saw only one.”

Of the five eggs in that nest, only one chick survived.

Occasionally, a piping plover nest will be abandoned or in danger of being washed out by waves. Monitors follow protocols to salvage these eggs for transport to the University of Michigan’s Biological Station near Pellston, Michigan. There, eggs are incubated and hatched and the chicks cared for by personnel from the Detroit Zoo. If a bird wears a “split band” (two colors on one band), they were hatched at the biological station. Since this practice began in 1992, the station has successfully hatched dozens of piping plovers.

When it’s time to leave the birds, Alice meets up with me. “Hoppy is using both legs now. He’s all better.”

“He’ll need a new name,” I smile.

Alice records my sightings onto her data sheet. On this last day, I had finally gotten the hang of it. What I thought would be a fun bird-watching outing turned out to be some of the most meticulous, difficult work I had ever done.

We return to camp to pack and straighten up for the next shift. Since most of the chicks had fledged, the time monitoring the birds was almost finished. Many of the female adults had already flown off leaving the males to guide the chicks south to their winter home along the Carolinas or the Gulf Coast.

Alice leaves notes for the next team about the birds and especially about the coyote. She was sure the evidence was there, the tale of carnage in the sand.

Finally, Alice shoulders her enormous pack and her scope and we haul our gear to the beach. Once there, she turns on the radio. We see the ranger boat approaching and hear the voice on the radio say they were en route to Dimmick’s Point to pick up Alice. She looks at me. “You weren’t mentioned,” she says with the slightest tease in her voice. “They may not let you on the boat.”

“What?” I say with mock horror. “They can’t leave the delightful volunteer behind!”

Finally. I get a smile from Alice, the master birdwatcher and protector of the endangered Great Lakes piping plover.

Loreen Niewenhuis is a scientist, adventurer and fast hiker. She has written a trilogy of books about our Great Lakes. Loreen travels widely giving dynamic presentations about our Great Lakes. Learn more at laketrek.com.

Photo(s) by Loreen Niewenhuis