Great Success for GLPIPL in 2015

July 17, 2015
Photo credit: Roger Eriksson

Photo credit: Roger Eriksson

The graduate work that I’ve been doing is in collaboration with the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort (GLPIPL). While I have a human dimensions focus to my research, I am still heavily involved in the banding effort and data collection/management for the project.

It has been an exciting year to be part of the project. Before the season started the hope was to beat the record of 71 pairs since the population was federally listed as endangered in 1986 with a dozen pairs. However, a late spring and high water levels across the state gave us little hope. For some time in May, we were concerned if we would reach the numbers we wanted. The goal was to just reach last year’s number of pairs (70).

Then all of a sudden in mid-June there was a burst of pairs forming. It was as though all the plovers decided to hold off on pairing up and then all acted at the same time. So now we are currently at 73 pairs! Stay tuned for how the season wraps up, there’s not much time left.

Learn more about the project on the GLPIPL website: http://www.glpipl.wordpress.com


Piping Plover Spring Migration Has Begun!

March 23, 2015
Piping Plover banded in 2014 in the Great Lakes region with a unique color band combination. The color combo is read left leg then right leg, top to bottom. This bird's combination is: Orange Flag (OF), Yellow (Y) over Green (G) : Aluminum band (X), Orange (O)

Piping Plover banded in 2014 in the Great Lakes region with a unique color band combination. The color combo is read left leg then right leg, top to bottom. This bird’s combination is: Orange Flag (OF), Yellow (Y) over Green (G) : Aluminum band (X), Orange (O)

Due to the unique color combination of bands on each bird, the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort (GLPIPL) is able to track each individual plover throughout the bird’s life as well as throughout the world. During the breeding season, the entire population is heavily monitored and protected by the project partners. Sightings during both spring and fall migration as well as the winter rely solely on people that see these birds and report them.

Recently a specific piping plover also known as Of,YG:X,O (see caption for why) has begun an incredible story. It hatched last summer (2014) in the Great Lakes and was banded by the research team. It was then spotted in the Bahamas where it spent the winter. This alone is impressive. However, it was just recently sighted in North Carolina. Not only does this show that the bird is still alive (a huge success for a young bird to keep surviving) but that it is also migrating north and heading to the breeding grounds.

Can’t wait to see where Of,YG:X,O goes and how this story continues!

Read more about this story on the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort blog.


Got no wheels, but I got birds

February 9, 2015

I don’t have a personal car currently. On the one hand that makes me feel very proud. There’s a significant reduction in my environmental/carbon footprint I can feel good about as an environmentalist. It’s also taught me how to be more innovative and independent when it comes to getting to the grocery store or exploring new areas. But on the other hand it’s definitely limiting, especially when it comes to visiting parks and other destinations that are out of walking distance.

I used to really focus on what I wasn’t able to do or see because I don’t have a car. Most of these things are bird related. And living in Minnesota especially means things like visiting Duluth and Sax-Zim Bog to go birding.

But a leisurely walk through my neighborhood reminded me that birds are all around us and you never need a car to enjoy them. That’s one of the greatest things about them. You can be anywhere in the world, at any time of day or year, and see a bird. You can’t say that about any other type of animal. Birds give us the opportunity to connect with nature everyday. Whether you’re in the center of the biggest metropolis or the most remote middle of nowhere, there are birds.

While the draw to see specific birds or see birds in specific places may never go away, I appreciate that no matter where my day takes me, I’ll always have some birds to enjoy.

Blue Jay seen in the neighborhood.

Neighborhood Blue Jay.


NPR Story on DE Shorebird Project

August 1, 2014
When I was in Delaware this May doing shorebird banding, NPR spent a day with us. The story just came out and I thought you’d enjoy learning more about the birds and what we were doing.
The story is 4 minutes long. And there are some pictures in the article you won’t want to miss…

Piping Plovers – Beyond Cute

July 8, 2014

The following piece I wrote was originally posted on the Nemesis Bird Blog.


Many birders are familiar with this small migratory shorebird and some know of its endangered status. Not to mention the fact that they’re adorable. But there’s a lot more about Piping Plovers (PIPL) than their good looks.

There are two subspecies in three distinct populations of Piping Plovers. The Atlantic coast has its own subspecies (Charadrius melodus melodus) while the internal populations are another subspecies (Charadrius melodus circumcinctus) split between the Great Plains and Great Lakes regions. Luckily there is enough distance between the populations that telling these two subspecies apart visually isn’t difficult. However, for record’s sake, the Great Plains and Great Lakes population tends to be a darker shade of gray than the Atlantic population. The inland males also tend to have a more complete and thicker black neckband compared to the ocean beach PIPLs.


Male Great Lakes Piping Plover (Photo by Jordan Rutter)

Male Great Lakes Piping Plover (Photo by Jordan Rutter)

The Great Lakes PIPL population is independently endangered and has the least amount of suitable breeding habitat of the three populations. Thus, lack of habitat, which also leads to increased disturbances and predation, makes breeding difficult. At one point these birds bred across the Great Lakes. Today the majority of the pairs are nesting in Michigan with a few others in Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada.

There are on average only ~60 pairs per year, for about the past decade. This year there are currently 70 pairs. We actually are currently watching two Plovers and hoping they nest so we can match the record for one season of 71 breeding pairs.


Female Great Lakes Piping Plover (Photo by Jordan Rutter)

Female Great Lakes Piping Plover (Photo by Jordan Rutter)

The University of Minnesota, along with partners such as US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, National Park Service, various state parks, citizen scientists, and others have extensively studied the Great Lakes population for over two decades. And now I’m a part of this research effort too as the UMN grad student on this project.

It is estimated that 96-98% of the Great Lakes population is banded and therefore able to be extensively monitored every year. If you’re in the Great Lakes area a banded Piping Plover is easy to identify because orange is the unique color band identifier for this population. The Great Plains population is also easy to identify because they exclusively use lime colored bands. The Atlantic population band varies in color. (This is primarily due to the larger geographic area and more banders working with those birds).

Every banded chick in the Great Lakes gets a regular orange plastic band on one leg and an official metal band on the other, both above the joint. The chick will have an additional color band(s) (and this can be any color) below the joint, which will be the same combination as their brothers/sisters. This is considered a brood combination. The reason the chicks from the same brood get the same combination is to make it easier to study such things as parental success, fledging rates, and return success. There are other unique identifiers for individual chicks. The orange bands have one of four different color dots and the color band below usually has a three-digit number on it as well.

Female Great Lakes Piping Plover with unique color band combination including orange flag indicating it is a Great Lakes bird (Photo by Jordan Rutter)

Female Great Lakes Piping Plover with unique color band combination including orange flag indicating it is a Great Lakes bird (Photo by Jordan Rutter)


Every breeding adult in the Great Lakes gets their orange band replaced with a plain (not alphanumeric) orange flag and a new, unique only to them color combo. Thus, each adult that contributes to the population gets marked in a way that acts as their name. Once an adult bird has their unique combo they are not recaptured again. Only observations are made on these birds in subsequent years. This is to reduce disturbances and interactions with the birds as much as possible.


Side note comment:

Other blogs and social media posts have touched on the topic of whether banding is ethical. Posts have even been written about bands in bird photography. It is because of banding that we can keep such detailed records and monitor each individual PIPL in this endangered population. While it would obviously be preferred to not interfere with birds of any species, we as a society have learned so much because of the data we can collect when we have a bird in the hand. We have also reached a point where humans have influenced our planet to such an extent that marking every bird in an endangered population is needed for wildlife management and conservation efforts.




Delaware Shorebird Project

June 14, 2014

I was helping the Delaware Shorebird Project (DSP) banding various species and doing monitoring surveys in May. I primarily did this to get some exposure and practice before heading off to grad school where I will be studying piping plovers. DSP is only allowed to catch birds so many times a season so it was very special that I got to participate on those days.


The monitoring surveys consisted of going to specific places (usually a small sand spit island that you got dropped off via boat and then picked up 4+ hours later) trying to make behavior observations and resight birds that were already banded. It was sort of like a treasure hunt except that you sat on a rock/folding chair the whole time and the birds moved rather than you.


Red Knot

Red Knot

The whole experience was amazing and I’m so glad I did this for so many reasons. It was so much fun and I got so much practice, definitely a confidence boost in terms of working with shorebirds. Plus the people were great too! There were 20-25 people at any given time, most all living in one beach house. There were about a dozen plus people from 5 countries other than the US. Most were from England with a few from the Netherlands, Canada, Mexico, and Argentina.


One of the most incredible things that happened during this time though was that we actually re-caught a banded Red Knot. After looking in the database afterward we found out that this bird is a female and had been originally banded in Argentina in 1995! To interact with a bird that not only is endangered but has flown thousands and thousands of miles to places I can only dream of and has overcome so much…it was absolutely breath-taking!


Savannah Sparrows

May 7, 2014

What’s in a name? Well for the Savannah Sparrow (SAVS) it can be very deceiving. You may think this bird is literally named. It’s a sparrow and it prefers grassy (savannah) areas. However, it was actually named by Alexander Wilson, a famous 19th century ornithologist, who collected a specimen in Savannah, Georgia. (Side note, Wilson is awesome and even has ties to my undergrad college, Oberlin!) I think they should have been named something like the hungry, hungry sparrow because the chicks require their mother to collect ~10x her weight in bugs just to make sure all of them are fed enough to grow (or to continue getting food). Luckily though this only lasts about a week. Or maybe we should have named them the big and little sparrow. The SAVS in Nova Scotia are about 50% heavier than any other SAVS subspecies. This Canadian population is also the lightest in color compared to the other subspecies. I would understand them being so pale in a Canadian winter but they do migrate so I wonder why they just don’t have that much color. Maybe they just don’t tan well? SAVS exhibit natal philopatry (this means that they return to the same place, usually near where they were born, year after year) which leads to a strong influence on the birds genetics and cause for the variety of subspecies. The oldest known SAVS was almost seven years old which is very solid given that it is a small migratory species.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow