Notes from the Field: Tiny Shorebirds Get New Chance at Survival

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shore bird that breeds in three distinct geographic locations; the beaches along the Atlantic coast, the shorelines of the Great Lakes, and along major rivers of the northern Great Plains. The Great Lakes population is classified as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the other two populations are classified as threatened.

At one point, this population of Great Lakes piping plovers was estimated to range from 12 to 32 breeding pairs. After extensive observation, scientists found that plover nests were abandoned and concluded that salvaging these abandoned eggs could contribute to the species’ recovery. For almost two decades, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has led the effort to collect these abandoned eggs, incubate them and rear the chicks that hatch until they can be released to join wild plovers.

The DZS operates the captive rearing facility at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Mich., and oversees aviculturists from the Detroit Zoo and other Association of Zoos & Aquariums institutions who staff the facility from May through August. The dedicated zookeepers monitor the eggs during incubation and care for the chicks after they hatch. Once they are able to fly, after about four weeks, the birds – that would have otherwise perished – are banded and released into the wild. As they migrate to their wintering grounds, the plovers are identified by birders and photographers who report their findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I spent five weeks this summer at the captive rearing center, working with what I believe are some of the cutest chicks in the world. While our conservation efforts have been incredibly successful over the last 17 years, the Great Lakes piping plover population is still less than 80 breeding pairs annually. This year, seven DZS zookeepers and 12 staff members from eight other zoos helped raise 16 chicks from abandoned eggs to join the more than 90 chicks that wild birds raised.

Adult piping plovers tend to breed around the shores of the Great Lakes on large patches of undisturbed sandy beach filled with cobble. Sometimes, their nests are washed out by waves, a parent is killed by a predator, or an unleashed dog causes abandonment. These nests are closely monitored and when staff has determined that the eggs are not being incubated, they are officially declared abandoned and the eggs are transferred to the captive rearing center. In some cases, such as when a storm is passing through, “dummy” eggs will be placed in the nest while the real eggs are placed in an incubator overnight and then returned the next day.

The captive rearing center has multiple incubators and equipment to nurture each egg and provide the conditions it needs to develop a healthy embryo. After almost four weeks in the egg, a little plover chick will spend two to four days hatching. Newly hatched chicks weigh about as much as three pennies yet are very mobile, looking for food within a few hours of hatching. When a full clutch of four chicks hatches, it looks like four cotton balls on eight toothpicks running around.

Rearing plover chicks properly and assuring they will be ready for release is no easy task. We weigh the chicks every morning and observe them to make sure each bird is thriving. Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate curator of birds and manager of the captive rearing operations, fields any questions from staff. One chick in particular needed a little more help from staff this year as it had difficulty hatching, curved toes, bowed legs and some feather abnormalities (genetic issues that can’t be avoided), but zookeepers did not give up on this little chick, providing antibiotics, extra feeds and extra practice flying. In the end, although a little different, this bird had incredible character running around and flying well.

We routinely feed the birds a variety of insects every few hours while they also learn to forage on wild insects. They grow fast and their flight feathers start coming in within two weeks. At 17 or 18 days old, the piping plovers are starting to stretch their wings and by 25-27 days they should be flying well. We have one flight pen along the beach where the plovers grow, forage and learn natural behaviors; another is attached to our building to give them outdoor access overnight and more space to practice flying.

Plover fledglings are usually released between 28 and 33 days old. This year we reared 16 chicks that were released into the wild. Most releases occur in an area where there are similarly aged wild chicks; often the releases happen at Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is an incredible feeling opening the door to the crate and letting these small chicks fly free. They immediately start foraging, bathing and or flying around. With a little luck and some decent wind, they will make it to the Atlantic coast or maybe even the Bahamas, enjoy winter, and return to northern Michigan next spring. On August 14, we released the final four birds of the season at Sleeping Bear Dunes, including the special little chick who needed all the extra help. This bird ran down the beach and almost immediately started flying! Each piping plover is a special part of our Great Lakes ecosystem – please be mindful as you share the beaches with these charismatic yet fragile friends.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care: Suiting up as a Whooping Crane

My job as a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) often has its surprises; for example, one time I discovered that some species of frog turn from bright green to dark green as they become anesthestized. Typically the surprises are the interesting and sometimes unbelievable things I learn about animals. But sometimes what I do during the day is not what I thought I’d be doing when I woke up that morning – like wearing a full-size whooping crane costume and spending a day in a field with some lost birds.

A few weeks ago, the DZS bird department was contacted by the International Crane Foundation, which is based in Baraboo, Wisconsin. They’d been tracking four yearling whooping cranes that were raised at the foundation and were newbies to the whole migration thing. The cranes had made their way to the Midwest from Florida but were thought to have been blown off course on their way back to Wisconsin by a storm that came across Lake Michigan. It was their first year migrating back on their own – who could blame them?

After locating the birds near a cornfield in Michigan, the staff at the Crane Foundation needed a veterinarian’s health certificate stating that the cranes were healthy enough to travel back to Wisconsin. They reached out to the DZS. I jumped in a car with our curator and associate curator of birds and headed about an hour north of the Detroit Zoo into an area where houses were few and far between and the landscape was mostly farm fields. There, we met up with the staff from the Crane Foundation and witnessed four beautiful juvenile cranes come in for a landing just on the opposite side of the pond from us. Unfortunately, “just on the opposite side of the pond” was about 1,500 feet away, and a determination of good health cannot be made from that distance. The next thing I knew, I was handed a pair of binoculars … and a crane costume. Yes; a crane costume!

You see, whooping cranes are highly endangered, and would in fact be extinct in North America if it weren’t for the captive rearing program headed up by the International Crane Foundation. The goal of the program is to create a sustainable wild population of whooping cranes, and this only works if the crane chicks are reared by “cranes”. Thus, human “parents” will dress up in crane costumes – the human body is covered in white, like the white feathering of the crane, and the human hand holds a replica of a crane head, complete with a functional beak, which teaches the chicks how to “be” a crane.

So on this particular day, I found myself meandering across a cornfield in rural Michigan, stopping to “graze” every few minutes, preen my “feathers” and survey my surroundings alongside my fellow “crane”, one of the Crane Foundation staff members. Not long after we started our way across the field, the four juveniles began to notice us and they took interest. Gradually, they made their way over, two moving through the shallow pond while the other two came around the pond’s perimeter. In less than 30 minutes, I was face to face – or rather, beak to beak – with four amazing whooping cranes. Their beautiful yellow eyes sized me up as I looked for any signs of illness, but I found none. After I’d visited with each crane and felt assured of their health, I simply enjoyed the awe — and surprise — of unexpectedly having the opportunity to spend a few brief moments so close to these incredible birds.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and works in the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Notes from the Field: ‘Iced in’ at the Palmer Station in Antarctica

With the right wind, the harbor can go from totally clear to completely packed with large pieces of ice and glacier chunks within just a few hours, icing us in at the Palmer Station. When this occurs, we have to wait for the winds to change before we can work to clear the ice out. Being stuck at Palmer for a couple days was no problem though; it gave us time to catch up on data and paperwork and we were able to hike to a cove to do some fieldwork with southern giant petrels.

Land travel requires a lot of gear and also snowshoes, which we outfitted ourselves with before walking out into the “backyard” of the Palmer Station. We hiked up to the top of the glacier, where the views were absolutely breathtaking.

We walked around an inlet and back down the glacier over to a couple spits of land where southern giant petrels, Antarctic terns, and kelp gulls can be found. Giant petrels can have a wingspan of almost 7 feet and their eye colors vary from light to very dark, with every individual having its own unique color pattern. Many of these majestic and often very gentle birds have been banded throughout the years, and we were able to retrieve identification numbers from several of them, which will aid in the study of these birds. We were also able to outfit one of the birds with a transmitter to collect data on where the bird is travelling.

Finally, the winds shifted direction and we were able to travel by boat to continue our island fieldwork. We spent a lot of time catching up on censuses of Adelie penguin colonies – much to our excitement, many were full of parents incubating eggs! One humorous mainstay is the elephant seals that hang out around the station. Most mornings when exiting the building, there are multiple elephant seals present, which I’m told isn’t so common from year to year. We have to watch where we walk and keep our distance, giving the proper respect and privacy to all the local wildlife. In Antarctica, there are treaties and conservation acts to follow with regard to viewing wildlife, which is a good reminder of how we should treat all wildlife and wild places, no matter where we are in the world.

Thanks for reading; I will report back soon!

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending the next few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.

Notes from the Field: Antarctica Fieldwork Begins

The first day in the field was an absolute dream come true for me. After an early breakfast and an intense look at the weather, we collected our gear and got dressed for a day of fieldwork. We dressed in layers to protect ourselves from the harsh environment and the potentially soaking boat ride. During my time in Antarctica, we will travel by boat to many islands to study different colonies of birds. The weather can change in a heartbeat, with strong winds bringing rough seas and treacherous ice drifts, so we need to be prepared.

We headed out to a nearby island, which has multiple colonies of Adelie penguins. We tied up the boat and proceeded to count birds and collect data. I was speechless staring at a colony of these penguins and the pure beauty of nature – some birds were working on building nests out of rocks and others already had eggs – Adelie penguins generally lay a clutch of two. It is fascinating watching the birds work on their nests and interact within the colony.

Another bird of note in this region is the brown skua, a good-sized bird that will nest up on rocky ledges around the penguin colony. They often lurk on the edges of the colony waiting for an opportunity to steal eggs. Their strategy works well and they certainly get their fair share of Adelie eggs.

Near another Adelie colony, we spotted a southern elephant seal nursing her pup. There are many southern elephant seals in the area – the females weigh close to a ton while full grown males may weigh as much as 4 or 5 tons! Antarctica is a magical place that surrounds you with beautiful, pristine nature.

Throughout the week we have visited multiple islands surveying the birds and taking data. The conditions have been good with temperatures around freezing, with snow and rain mixed in. Thankfully the high winds tend to hold off until the evening, allowing us to get our work done. While I’m known at the Detroit Zoo for wearing shorts year-round, here I am wearing pants. What can I say – it’s Antarctica!

Thanks for reading; I will report back soon!

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending the next few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.

Notes from the Field: Arriving in Antarctica

Reporting back from blue water. We experienced some rain, but only light winds as we sailed through the infamous Drake Passage, offering us the “Drake lake” not the “Drake shake”! Throughout the Passage, many more feathered companions greeted us including Wilson’s storm petrels, slender-billed prions, light-mantled albatross and more. The light-mantled albatross is a majestic flyer that glided around our boat effortlessly.

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During our fourth evening on the boat, icebergs and pieces of ice started to consistently drift by while the rain changed to snow. We were getting close! By early afternoon on day five, the boat entered the 16-mile-long Neumayer Channel, which is a breathtakingly gorgeous passage. We cruised through incredible snow-covered cliffs, while icebergs of varying beautiful hues of blue floated past us. A couple ghost-like snow petrels made an appearance. Snow petrels are a pure white bird with black eyes and a black beak and are found in southern Georgia and Antarctica. We eventually passed Port Lockroy, which has a British research base and the nearest post office. Then, in the clearing as the clouds parted slightly, we could see a small collection of buildings: the U. S. Palmer Station and my home for the next couple of months.

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A handful of gentoo penguins came to the edge of the ice to greet us while we were landing the boat. It was nice to feel the hard ground under our feet after the wonderful five-day voyage. Since we landed in the evening, we hung out for a while at the station, meeting the very friendly current residents and then headed back to the boat for the night. The following morning, we got right to work unloading our gear, followed by a half-day of orientation. After orientation, I found my way down to a small hut, which is known as the “birders” office. The “birders” is a station nickname for our group that does bird research. I am joining three fantastic, expert field biologists to do field work/research on gentoo, adelie, and chinstrap penguins, southern giant-petrels, brown skuas and more. Much of the work involves long-term ecological studies and is associated with figuring out the bird’s relationship to and impact from climate change. This work is overseen and guided by the principal investigator, the world-renowned polar ecologist Dr. Bill Fraser, who also consulted with the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) on the design of the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, a spectacular facility under construction at the Detroit Zoo.

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Also while I’m down here, I will be able to absorb knowledge that can be brought back to the Detroit Zoo’s already expert penguin staff. Conservation and animal welfare are priorities of the DZS and this incredible opportunity will allow us to continue to improve the already excellent welfare we ensure for animals. The Detroit Zoo, home to the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare, is known internationally for our animal welfare program, and we are always challenging ourselves and our industry to continue improving. Starting tomorrow, I will jump into the field and will report back soon. Thank you for reading!

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending the next few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.

Animal Welfare: Preventing Bird Strikes

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Getting to see nature up close and personal Photo by Patti Truesdellis amazing – especially birds, which many of us are able to do from the comfort of our homes. I love to bird watch, and I have bird feeders at my house, as I’m sure many of you do. I enjoy seeing birds as they fly around, forage for food, interact with each other, and raise their young. We have bird feeders at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Zoo as well, which attract many airborne visitors.

We have to be vigilant, however, because we want to protect these incredible species as we invite them to join us in our outdoor spaces. Millions of birds are killed each year in the U.S. alone because of structures that are built by humans, and among the main culprits are windows. They let in light and they provide us with views, but they also confuse birds and create a very dangerous situation.

Humans and birds have very different visual systems, and what appears to us like a see-through barrier does not look that way to birds. The glass appears invisible to them and often acts as a reflective mirror. Because they can’t see the glass, birds will often fly into a window. This is a deadly phenomenon known as “bird strike”.

Photo by Patti TruesdellWindows are not a new threat for birds; however, this serious animal welfare and conservation issue does not get as much attention as it should. There are programs designed to bring attention to bird strikes and reduce the impact on birds, including the Lights Out program. There are also individuals who have devoted their careers and lives to the issue, such as Dr. Daniel Klem Jr., an ornithology professor from Muhlenberg College who spoke about his decades of work on this topic at the third International Symposium on Animal Welfare hosted by the Detroit Zoological Society and our Center for Zoo Animal Welfare in November of 2014.

The great news is that there are things we Photo by Jennie Millercan all do to help prevent birds from suffering. We can put up bird silhouettes on our windows (you will see many on the windows throughout the Zoo), or reflective tape. There is even special film and glass that can be installed that takes advantage of the fact that birds see in the ultraviolet range so that windows that seem clear to us are now seen by birds as real barriers. Photo by Jennie MillerIf you have bird feeders, don’t put them further away from your windows than 3 feet. This means that birds can come enjoy the food, but won’t gain enough momentum to harm themselves if they take off towards any windows. Use your blinds if you have them – this also lets birds know that they can’t fly through.

We truly have the ability to make a difference in the lives of individual birds that share the world with us, and in turn, help protect their species.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard

Notes from the Field: The Importance of One

From his first moments on Earth, a tiny piping plover nicknamed Smalls required round-the-clock care. He had difficulty hatching, experienced issues with his umbilical cord, developed a crooked toe, and caregivers were concerned he may have eye problems. He also remained quite small for his age as the days and weeks went on. Those who cared for him did so with determination as they focused on his recovery and development. Despite his many physical setbacks, Smalls survived, and has become a symbol of the power and importance of one.

Smalls is a part of a Detroit Zoological Society (DZS)-led conservation effort and captive-rearing program that is focused on increasing the population of piping plovers, an endangered species of shorebirds. Abandoned eggs are delivered to the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Mich., and the DZS oversees field workers from the Detroit Zoo and other Association of Zoos and Aquarium institutions who staff the facility May through August, monitoring the incubation period and caring for the chicks after they hatch. Once they are able to fly after about four weeks, the birds – that would have otherwise perished – are banded and released into the wild. As they migrate to their wintering grounds, the plovers are identified by birders and photographers who report their findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This summer, seven piping plover chicks were released from northern Michigan, and five have since been spotted by birders – one in South Carolina and four in Florida. DZS staff were especially thrilled to discover that Smalls was among those identified – he was photographed earlier this month by Pat and Doris Leary on a beach on Little Talbot Island in Florida. This tiny piping plover represents the importance of one and the DZS’s commitment to all the “ones” in its care, whether they are endangered or not. In Smalls’ case, being a part of an endangered species makes his significance even greater, since every individual is important to the recovery of Great Lakes piping plovers.

The Great Lakes population of piping plovers is now at 73 breeding pairs, setting a record of the highest number of wild pairs since the plovers were put on the endangered species list in 1985. The 207 captive-reared birds from the DZS program and their descendants have made a significant contribution to this small population.

For more information about the work being done by DZS and its collaborators, visit the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort’s website, Facebook and Twitter.