GARRISON - The little shorebirds are running out of shoreline. Piping plovers have been nesting on Lake Sakakawea shoreline for several years, but this year's higher-than-usual water has already pushed some of the threatened birds in areas of higher elevations.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been busy monitoring piping plover nesting activity along Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River. A number of nests have been identified. Unfortunately, several active shoreline nests are expected to slip under the water as Sakakawea continues to rise. In other instances, the plovers have vacated narrow shoreline in favor of more public haunts.
"This year we have some plovers nesting in some public parking lots where we didn't really want them to show up, but now we have to deal with them," said Mike Morris, Corps natural resources specialist. "We'd like the public to respect the signs and the buffer areas. We'd also like to thank the recreating public for understanding."
Mike Morris, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers natural resources specialist, and Carol Aron, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecological services, are among those closely monitoring piping plover nests along Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River.
Piping plovers prefer to nest and raise their young along shorelines. About half of the known population of piping plovers nest in North Dakota. The small birds are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Many piping plover nesting sites in North Dakota, such as this one at Sportsmen’s Centennial Park on the east end of Lake Sakakawea, are clearly marked in an effort to help the birds successfully raise their young.
Several piping plover nests are located in boat ramp areas that receive heavy public use during the summer. The areas are clearly marked with signs and are surrounded with a protective barrier. Wire fencing has been placed around the actual nests. Piping plovers can easily leave and enter the enclosures but, like many other species of wildlife, cannot tolerate too much human interference.
"We really appreciate the public staying out of the marked areas," said Carol Aron, USFWS ecological services. "The plovers are especially sensitive to people on foot. If you see the birds moving we ask that you back off and give them some room."
Aron describes piping plovers as "local" North Dakotans. An astounding 50 percent of the U.S. population of piping plovers, estimated at less than 3,000, nest in North Dakota.
"They are an important part of the ecosystem," explained Aron. "This is their summer home. They winter on the beaches in Texas and Mexico, but it is the same birds that come up here every year and then the chicks come back to North Dakota to nest."
Piping plovers usually lay four eggs in a bowl-like depression on the ground formed by small stones gathered to form a nest. The eggs closely resemble the color of the stones, making near perfect camouflage for the nest. The incubation period is 28 days and it takes another 28 days before the young will be able to fly. That means some nesting areas could remain cordoned off for up to two more months.
"We're trying to find a balance. We're trying to share with people," said Aron.
Piping plovers have some unique incubation techniques not usually associated with nesting birds. For instance, piping plovers have an instinct that allows them to heat or cool eggs when necessary.
"These are amazing birds," said Aron. "On a hot day they'll go down to the water and get their feathers wet and stand over the eggs and let the water drop on them and cool them and shade them. You think of birds as heating the eggs but, a lot of the time, these birds are cooling them."
While the public may be asked to make some adjustments to avoid too much interference with nesting piping plovers, the long-term goal is to support the population in an effort to increase numbers and remove the bird from the threatened list.
"That's our goal, to de-list them," said Morris. "To follow in the footsteps of the bald eagle."
The bald eagle was once listed as endangered but the numbers have rebounded to the point where that is no longer the case. However, bald eagles remain a protected species.
According to Morris, several crews will continue to monitor piping plover nesting activity on Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River. The nests are marked with GPS coordinates and the data forwarded to the Corps' water management division in Omaha, Neb.
"That way they know were every nest is on the system, as well as Fish and Wildlife," said Morris.
The information is considered critical, particularly since many of the nests are close to water level now and will likely be lost to rising water. Sometime piping plovers will nest a second time if the first nest is destroyed, but not if the birds determine it is too late in the year to successfully raise their young to flight stage.
Piping plovers closely resemble the more common killdeer, even to the point of engaging in a broken wing act to lure predators or people away from their nests. Morris asks that the public be aware of the similarities.
"The plovers do look a lot like a killdeer. If you see that broken wing act and are not certain, please give them some space," said Morris.
If anyone in the public discovers what appears to be a piping plover nest, the Corps would like to know about it by calling the Corps' Riverdale office at 654-7759.