Record number of piping plovers nest in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
The public can help piping plover recovery efforts by reporting their sightings of piping plovers with metal and color bands on their legs. Here is a piping plover at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan.

MADISON - Good news for recovery of the federally and state-endangered piping plover: a record number of eight pairs nested in Wisconsin this summer, including at an island restoration site in lower Green Bay. Piping plovers hadn't nested in Green Bay for 75 years until last year.

"This is the highest known number of nesting pairs in the state in a single year," says Sumner Matteson, a Department of Natural Resources avian ecologist. "It's very exciting because plovers returned again to the Cat Island restoration chain this year, where originally we didn't expect to find them. So now we know their nesting there in 2016 wasn't a fluke." A lone pair turned up to nest in 2016; this year four pairs nested on the island.

Because the number of piping plovers is so low in the Great Lakes--76 nesting pairs -- "every nesting pair and every nesting site makes a difference," and increases Wisconsin's contribution to the species' recovery in the Great Lakes, Matteson says.

Piping plovers once nested along the shores of all the Great Lakes but habitat loss, recreational pressure and predation, and shoreline development likely contributed to serious declines. Typically, piping plovers need large isolated beach and dune habitats for their nesting and chick rearing.

By 1948, only one pair of plovers was known to nest in Wisconsin and the piping plover was added to the state endangered species list in 1979. Across the Great Lakes region, the loss of habitat caused numbers to drop below 20 nesting pairs region-wide before the small shorebird was listed as federally endangered in 1986, Matteson says.

With help from federal, tribal, state and local partners, the number of breeding pairs in the Great Lakes has climbed to 76, half-way toward the regional recovery goal of 150 breeding pairs, most of them in Michigan. Wisconsin's contribution of eight breeding pairs in 2017, is up from six breeding pairs in 2016 and five breeding pairs in 2015.

The eight breeding pairs that nested in Wisconsin this summer fledged 13 chicks. Six of those chicks fledged from Cat Island in Lower Green Bay, where a partnership of state, federal and local partners has been restoring the island in a dredging project described in this video, Cat Island - Rebirth of an Environment.

"We've been very pleased with progress at Cat Island and were surprised to see how quickly bird species responded to the habitat improvements there," says Steve Galarneau, who directs DNR's Office of Great Waters, which played a major role in the restoration of Cat Island.

"We are especially excited to see the piping plovers return. Restoration work now underway at Wisconsin Point in Superior should provide additional high quality nesting habitat for plovers and other species."

Piping plover chick shortly after it hatched.

The seven other piping plover chicks fledging from Wisconsin nests came from Long Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore along Lake Superior. For many years, that had been the only Wisconsin site contributing chicks, with more than 100 fledged over the last 11 years following concerted restoration and protection efforts by the National Park Service, Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, DNR, USFWS and The Nature Conservancy are paying off.

Restoration work at Wisconsin Point in Superior, and to a more limited extent at Seagull Bar in Marinette County, by DNR and partners is underway now, and the hope is to expand the number of nesting sites.

Report sightings

The public can help piping plover recovery efforts by reporting their sightings of piping plovers with metal and color bands on their legs. Matteson helps lead efforts at the Apostle Islands site and the Cat Island site to band chicks so that they can be tracked in coming years to learn more about their survival, their migration routes, and their habitats.

The color codes used on bands varies according to the location where they were banded. By getting reports of the birds' whereabouts, the recovery partners can better understand the birds' migratory routes, the habitats they use, and their survivorship. For more information on piping plovers and how to report your sightings of banded piping plovers, go to the DNR website,, and search "piping plover."