(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — Love was apparently in the air this summer, and that’s good news for the Great Lakes piping plovers.

For the first time in more than 70 years, two pairs of Great Lakes piping plovers have nested and successfully fledged five chicks from Gull Point at Presque Isle State Park. That’s big news, said Sarah Sargent, executive director at Erie Bird Observatory.

“We’ve been having one pair at a time since 2017,” Sargent said. “The first year (2017) we had two pairs, however one of those nests was not successful because the chicks never hatched because of high water.”

A Great Lakes piping plover photographed at Gull Point Natural Area in Presque Isle State Park by Sarah Sargent, executive director at Erie Bird Observatory.

From one pair to two pairs for a total of five chicks? That may not sound like impressive math to some, but consider the shorebirds’ troubled past before judging the small numbers.

The federally endangered Great Lakes piping plover once boasted a population of 500-800 pairs with birds spotted on each of the Great Lakes. But by the late 1980s, the population had declined to 11-14 pairs, according to the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team website. Then, the pairs were only spotted in Michigan in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

It would be more than 60 years between sightings of a pair of Great Lakes piping plovers at Presque Isle State Park. They’ve returned every season since 2017. This year, two pairs showed up. They’re the only pairs on Lake Erie, and they’re in Erie’s Presque Isle State Park. The birds are banded and tracked.

“We’ve had the same male breeding bird since 2017. The second male is the offspring of the male from the first year,” Sargent said. “There’s not that many in the world, and we have quite a few of them here, so that’s what’s exciting.”

To explain it further, Papa Bird put down his roots, and now the babies are coming back to stake their own claims in Erie.

And that didn’t happen by accident. The Erie Bird Observatory, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program have all teamed up to protect the population. Locally, Great Lakes piping plover nests at Presque Isle State Park are protected to keep predators out. Areas are blocked from visitor traffic to leave undisturbed beach areas for breeding. And vegetation control work is near constant to maintain an open, sandy beach.

“This is where they come to raise their chicks, so it’s a really critical area for them,” Sargent explained.

A Great Lakes piping plover chick photographed at Gull Point Natural Area in Presque Isle State Park by Mary Birdsong, primary shorebird monitor at Erie Bird Observatory.

Counting all of the birds this year, including the recently fledged birds, there are fewer than 200 Great Lakes piping plovers (including about 70 nesting pairs). That’s total. Worldwide. And that’s counting the recently fledged birds. Following the dangers presented by winter, traveling for winter in the south, and winter itself, plus predators, that population is expected to reduce to about 150 birds total by spring, Sargent said. But that’s an improvement from where the population was in the 1980s, and here in Erie, it’s great news to the Erie Bird Observatory.

“It’s hopeful — it’s always a good thing to get more birds. With any kind of conservation and restoration effort, we want to see a population increasing,” Sargent said. “We believe there is space for additional pairs out at Gull Point and other sections of the park. We’re hopeful we’ll see increases. We’re not really sure how many, or what the local carrying capacity is, but we’re trying to get more of them to settle and raise chicks.”

For those who are interested in helping the birds, Sargent said the best thing people can do is respect the restrictions at Gull Point.

“Don’t land your kayak out there. Don’t walk beyond the roping,” she said.

A Great Lakes piping plover brooding chick photographed at Gull Point Natural Area in Presque Isle State Park by Mary Birdsong, primary shorebird monitor at Erie Bird Observatory.

There are opportunities to volunteer locally with the Erie Bird Observatory to help the birds as well. In the spring, they need help roping off the breeding beaches, and in the fall, they need help taking the ropes down.

Interestingly, Great Lakes piping plovers winter where people from the Great Lakes states vacation — Mostly in Florida, but many in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Some make it as far south as the Bahamas, and some to Cuba. One has even been reported on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Sargent said people can help the Great Lakes piping plover population by looking for the birds while on vacation in those areas and reporting the color bands. That said, the birds still need open beaches and lots of space.

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“They’re very tied to open beaches, and that’s where people love to recreate,” Sargent said. “It’s good to understand that we need to share those beaches with the birds who depend on them, and to let them rest when they need to rest, and to not keep flushing them by letting their dogs run after them.”