Seas & Shores

A Rare Bird Returns to the Shores of Lake Ontario

Piping Plovers nesting on the lake's beaches for the first time since the 80s.

For the first time since the early 1980s, Piping Plovers have been observed nesting on the beaches of Lake Ontario. The Piping Plover’s return to the shores of Lake Ontario is an indication of a healthy, functioning system--something we should all feel proud of. The federally endangered Great Lakes Piping Plover population has risen from 12 pairs in 1990 to 70 pairs in 2014 with most nesting in Michigan. In order for the population to fully recover, it needs to expand to other locations in the Great Lakes. In the 1930s, as many as 30 pairs nested along the Great Lakes in New York and we are hopeful that if we adequately protect the pairs that have recently returned, we can reach historic population levels.

The Piping Plover is a robin-sized, sandy colored shorebird that relies on beaches to raise its family. These small adults weigh 50 grams which is equivalent to half a stick of butter! Being listed as federally endangered means every individual bird is significant to the population. That is why Audubon New York, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Onondaga Audubon, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and US Fish and Wildlife Service, with help from volunteers, have been working to ensure that the individual Piping Plovers that have returned to New York are protected and able to nest successfully.

With ever-growing demands on our beaches, there are significantly fewer places for plovers to nest, rest, and feed. We are asking that people share the shore with these shorebirds. What may seem like everyday use of beaches to us can disturb breeding Piping Plovers; when an adult bird is scared by close encounters with people or dogs it may leave or abandon its nest or be separated from chicks, which leaves eggs or chicks vulnerable to the elements and predators. Piping Plovers are protected under the Endangered Species Act and disturbing them can be considered harassment under federal law and result in tickets and fines.

Nests, and even adult Piping Plovers, are really hard to see because they are small and well camouflaged against sand. Both parents take care of the nest and take turns to feed on the shore. Newly hatched plover weigh the equivalent of two pennies and cannot fly. Unlike other young that are fed by their parents, plover chicks need to navigate the beach and find food for themselves and need their parents to help keep them warm and safe from the elements. It takes about a month before a plover chick can fly and they are very vulnerable during this period.

The good news is that it is possible for people and wildlife to coexist on beaches. On many beaches, people near nesting areas can read, nap, relax, and birdwatch without disturbing the birds. We are asking all beach visitors this spring and summer to follow these simple steps to share the beach with Piping Plovers and help them survive:

  • Respect all areas that are fenced or roped-off to protect nesting habitat and birds.
  • Properly dispose of or carry out trash to avoid attracting predators.
  • Don’t feed wildlife or feral cats, which are predators of Piping Plover eggs, chicks, and adults, especially near the beach.
  • If possible, keep your dog off beaches where plovers are nesting. If dogs are allowed, keep them leashed at all times to avoid frightening birds, crushing nests, and killing chicks.
  • Be mindful that plover eggs and chicks are hard to see; be careful where you step, even if you don’t notice any plovers in the area.
  • Give birds space and walk around them if you see them. Observe them from a distance. If you hear a Piping Plover give its warning “peep-lo” call, that’s likely a sign that you’re too close.
  • Fly kites away from plover nesting areas.
  • Share the Piping Plover story with your friends and family.
  • Contact Audubon New York (jliner@audubon.org) to learn how you can volunteer as a Piping Plover monitor.

For wildlife, beaches need to be more than beautiful. A fully functioning beach is a place where all the plants and wildlife that depend on it are able to survive. We hope you can join us in ensuring Piping Plovers have a safe place to successfully raise their families.