Two of the bird world’s youngest rock stars are turning heads, and binoculars, on Georgia’s coast.
The young piping plovers spotted last week – one on Cumberland Island, the other on Little Egg Island Bar in the Altamaha River Delta – are siblings raised at Chicago’s Montrose Beach this summer.
If you haven’t heard, that’s the same family of these small, stocky shorebirds that made headlines and spurred a naming ceremony for the chicks. The results: Hazel, Esperanza and Nish. The parents go by Monty and Rose.
Credit part of the fame to where Monty and Rose nested the last two years. Montrose in uptown Chicago is the city’s largest beach and one of its busiest. But we’re also talking Great Lakes piping plovers. There are three geographically defined nesting populations of piping plovers. The Great Lakes birds are federally listed as endangered. Only 64 nesting pairs were documented this year.
Which explains the excitement when Hazel and Esperanza were seen in Georgia in one week.
DNR wildlife biologist Tim Keyes spotted Esperanza on Little Egg Island Bar during an International Shorebird Survey, a key index of shorebird populations. Pat and Doris Leary, longtime volunteers who monitor shorebirds on Cumberland Island, reported Hazel on our most southern barrier island the next day.
Keyes and the Learys knew the birds were Great Lakes piping plovers. Scientists place colored leg bands on hatchlings to identify them later in the field. The Great Lakes plovers sport an orange band. The young in this clutch were fitted with an additional purple one.
But it wasn’t confirmed these two were part of the beloved Chicago family until a University of Minnesota researcher who tracks the population checked the photos and reported that Esperanza – marked by a red star on one band – and Hazel (blue star) had made Georgia part of their inaugural migration south.
They aren’t the first Great Lakes piping plovers to do so. “Surveys have documented up to 61 Great Lakes piping plovers either wintering or passing through Georgia,” Keyes said.
That’s more than 30 percent of the known population.
The bottom line is our coast is vital to migrating and wintering shorebirds. More evidence: About 80,000 acres of Georgia’s barrier islands were designated a Landscape of Hemispheric Importance in 2019.
Why the focus? Habitat loss is a keen threat facing shorebirds and other long-distance migrants. These twice-a-year journeys that can easily top a thousand miles are already dangerous. Studies show that whimbrels, another shorebird, are five times more likely to die during migration than at other times.
Conserving the flats, bars, beaches, dunes and forests that birds need for foraging and shelter is critical.
Hazel and Esperanza might spend the winter in Georgia or fly farther south – to Florida or possibly even the Bahamas, although South Carolina, Georgia and Florida are wintering strongholds for these birds.
By the way, Esperanza means “hope,” which speaks to what this bird and his family mean to their kind.
The third sibling – Nish – hasn’t been seen in Georgia. “But,” said Keyes, “we’re looking.”
Departing From Chicago …
How long it took Esperanza and Hazel to fly the roughly 1,000 miles from Chicago to the Georgia coast isn’t known. What is known: Esperanza was last seen at Montrose Beach on Aug. 10 and Hazel on Aug. 2.
With Esperanza first spotted on Little Egg Island Bar Aug. 19, that means this bird 7 inches long at best and barely 2 ounces in weight made the trip in under nine days, or an average of 100-plus miles a day.
The siblings’ migration was likely much faster. The record is held by a piping plover that traveled from Sleeping Bear Dunes, Mich., to Crandon Park in Miami, Fla. – some 1,600 miles – in less than 46 hours.
Please report piping plover sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org. Critical details include band colors and where the bands are on the bird’s legs, a description of the location, and the date. Digital photos and GPS coordinates also help. Learn more.