As a pet lover and someone partial to a beach bonfire, Sarah Glesner said she still avoids shoreline recreation during May and June because of one “adorable, fuzzy” and nearly extinct species: the piping plover.
Glesner, project coordinator with the St. Louis River Alliance, and other birding enthusiasts say the bird’s 30-year absence is partly due to beach parties and unleashed dogs.
Telling people to limit recreation on Park Point and Wisconsin Point “seems like a stick-in-the-mud thing,” said Glesner.
That doesn’t keep her from doing everything she can to bring the piping plover back. She talks with local authorities and city councils about enforcing leash laws, restricted access and curfews and goes into the classrooms to educate others about this endangered bird.
On Saturday, Glesner set up “save the plover” volunteer training at the Bagley Nature Center, part of the University of Minnesota Duluth. Between Duluth and Superior, there are about 20 volunteers. More volunteer training is available. (See information below.)
“It’s a great reason to be outside,” said volunteer Annmarie Genisz.
Plovers have been on the mind of conservationists since the 1980s when there were only a handful of the species still alive. Gray, small, stocky and standing on orange legs, the piping plover is “the most stupidly cute bird there is,” Brey said.
Plovers are expected to arrive along the shorelines within weeks, so efforts to spot and keep this bird in the region are in full swing. And that means keeping the beaches clear for 16 weeks so there can be a successful pairing and nesting.
Brey has never actually seen a plover in the three years she’s spent trying to save it. In fact, there hasn’t been a successful plover pair nesting in Duluth since 1986.
“It’s a combination of factors,” Brey said. With brick-and-mortar developments, increased recreation and narrow shores limiting vegetation and nesting grounds, the beach simply is not habitable for the bird. The Apostle Islands in Wisconsin have the nearest breeding population of plovers.
For plovers to arrive in the Twin Ports, “We hope this year is the year,” Glesner said.
But it’s going to take a group of dedicated volunteers, “psychological fencing,” educating the public and, most of all, patience to bring the plovers back.
Last year there was almost a successful nesting by the dunes across from the Sky Harbor Airport. Two males were seen waiting for female plovers. But they quickly vacated and efforts were squelched by a late-night celebration on the shore.
“A lot of people like to party there,” Glesner said.
Volunteers sign up in shifts so there’s a constant watch on a potential plover site. Volunteers can, up to their comfort level, remind people that by law they must keep their dogs leashed and not build fires. But volunteers have no enforcement capability.
Some beachgoers understand the importance of what volunteers tell them, Glesener said. But some still look right in the eyes of volunteers after being asked to keep their dog on a leash and unclip.
If the presence of plovers is officially established, that “changes the game,” Glesner said. Disturbing the birds’ habitat then becomes a federal offense.
Because the plover is only slightly larger than a chickadee, it’s vulnerable to other species and not easily seen by birders, let alone pedestrians. Basically the bird looks like a gray, fuzzy rock, said Glesner.
Since the project is federally funded, there’s strict protocol in place if a plover is spotted. But the main concern of volunteers and staff is to keep clean data. No birds still means plenty of data.
Volunteers, however, are not responsible for identifying a plover if someone is so lucky to spot one. It’s up to staff to respond to initial calls and officially confirm if a plover is found. If so, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is notified to pretty much roll out the red carpet, or fencing.
People interested in volunteering have to apply and sign waivers. Once complete, there’s more paperwork like volunteer shift sign-up sheets, data logs, maps and more. Plus, you get a cool yellow wind jacket to wear when patrolling the beach.