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.

Greenprint: Trash from Great Lakes Turned into Art at Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently partnered with ArtRoad Nonprofit, an organization that provides art-based activities, instruction and supplies to elementary schools in southeastern Michigan that are lacking in art programs.

In addition to the incredible educational opportunities this organization shares with hundreds of students annually, they also reuse donated items within their art projects in order to reduce waste. This aspect of the organization especially appeals to us as we continue with our Greenprint initiatives and award-winning efforts to create a more sustainable future.

I recently had the opportunity to volunteer in an ArtRoad classroom, where we worked with students on repurposing various items into works of art. The students greeted me with a warm welcome, and knowing that I work at the Detroit Zoo, created penguin art using recycled vinyl for the birds’ feet.

In turn, I provided the students with journals that DZS staff created using recycled millage signs. We hope these journals will help the budding artists capture their imaginations on paper.

Recently, ArtRoad collaborated with the Alliance for the Great Lakes to collect recyclable materials and debris from the shorelines of Lake Michigan. Using these items, more than 150 elementary school students spent two months creating five fish sculptures, one for each of the five Great Lakes. This effort aims to bring awareness about the effects plastic pollution has on freshwater ecosystems.

We are excited to be able to share this educational and impactful project with Detroit Zoo visitors – these fish sculptures will be on display April 22-July 9. It’s only fitting that the art exhibition will be unveiled during GreenFest, our Earth Day celebration, and will be on display during Sunset at the Zoo, our annual fundraising gala that carries a theme this year of “Green is the New Black”, celebrating our groundbreaking efforts in sustainability.

Our recent initiatives include discontinuing the sale of bottled water on Zoo grounds – keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually – and building an anaerobic digester which will convert more than 500 tons of animal manure annually into methane-rich gas to power the Zoo’s animal hospital.

Be sure to check out the ArtRoad exhibition on your next visit to the Detroit Zoo!

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Greenprint initiatives.

Education: 100 Hopeful Days

We could all use a little hope sometimes, especially when it comes to the environment. That’s why the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) has launched the #100HopefulDays campaign. NNOCCI is a collaborative effort to establish a network of professionals who are skilled in communicating climate science to broad audiences. These efforts are led by the New England Aquarium, in conjunction with some other amazing organizations, including the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA).

The #100HopefulDays campaign will highlight the ways the NNOCCI community is making positive changes in the world. There are people all over this planet who are working together and battling longstanding obstacles to make the world a better place for future generations. We feel it is our responsibility to take care of our natural resources by making practical and feasible choices – however great or small – to protect our environment. Through this campaign, the NNOCCI is sharing all of these actions and aiming to inspire, engage and focus on reasons to hope.

Creating a sustainable future is one of the pillars of the Detroit Zoological Society. Through our Greenprint initiative, our goal is to inspire others to join us on our Green Journey as we continuously look for ways to reduce our ecological footprint. Recent efforts include discontinuing the sale of bottled water on Zoo grounds – keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually – and building an anaerobic digester which will convert 400 tons of animal manure annually into methane-rich gas to power the Zoo’s animal hospital.

Our 20th annual fundraising 10K/5K event, Run Wild for the Detroit Zoo 2016, became one of the first races in the country to eliminate bottled water – instead, disposable bottles filled with fresh H20 were provided to participants after the race. We also no longer provide plastic bags at our gift shops or souvenir stands; visitors are encouraged to bring their own bags or purchase wildlife-themed reusable bags. We also recently unveiled a new parking lot that uses a progressive green design. Permeable pavement was incorporated into the lot with 215 new spaces, which reduces storm water runoff and improves water quality by filtering pollutants.

For all of these efforts and more, the Detroit Zoo was named one of Michigan’s and the nation’s 2016 Best and Brightest Sustainable Companies by the National Association for Business Resources as well as the 2015 Best-Managed Nonprofit by Crain’s Detroit Business.

Learn more about our Green Journey and download our Shades of Green guide to help lighten your impact on the Earth and the animals that share it with us. If you’re looking for reasons to feel hopeful and be inspired, follow the #100HopefulDays campaign at @_NNOCCI on Twitter. We can all make a difference and we need to start today.

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Greenprint: Plastic in the Great Lakes

Approximately 21.8 million pounds of plastic flow into the Great Lakes every year, more than half of which ends up in Lake Michigan, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology. For another way to grasp this fact, think of it this way: The plastic pollution in Lake Michigan is about the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with plastic bottles.

Photo by Rachel Handbury

While this study was the first to document our plastic problem, it is only the first step toward solving it. Perhaps imagining 100 pools full of plastic bottles will inspire members of our community to make the choice to limit their consumption of plastic altogether.

Approximately 80 percent of the litter on the shorelines of the Great Lakes is plastic, researchers estimate. This includes plastics that quickly sink to the bottom, as well as surface plastics like microbeads, fragments and pellets, plastic line and Styrofoam, which is often consumed by wildlife and likely causing harm.

Through our award-winning Greenprint initiative, the Detroit Zoological Society has taken steps to reduce plastic waste by eliminating the sale of bottled water at Detroit Zoo concessions and no longer providing plastic bags for purchases made at gift shops. Affordable reusable bottles and bags are instead available for purchase. We are also currently working on reducing the plastic packaging of items sold in Zoofari Market, Drake Passage Gifts and the Arctic Outpost. Please join us on our Green Journey by making a green New Year’s resolution to reduce your own plastic waste in the following ways:

  • Bring reusable bags on every trip to the grocery store.
  • Drink from a reusable water bottle and fill it from the tap.
  • Store food in glass containers instead of zip-top bags.
  • Pack waste-free meals using a lunch box.
  • Avoid plastic packaging. If the items you currently buy have excess plastic packaging, speak up to the manufacturer.
  • When ordering beverages in a restaurant, request that the server brings them without straws.
  • Avoid using disposable party-ware at your next event.
  • Read labels and do not purchase products containing microbeads.
  • If no plastic alternative is available for purchases, consider buying in bulk to avoid unnecessary plastic packaging.

Let’s keep the Great Lakes beautiful and safe for wildlife!

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the implementation of Greenprint initiatives.

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.

Notes From the Field: Conserving Common Terns

Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the director of conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Since 2007, the Detroit Zoological Society Photo by Cher Fajardohas been working to restore the population of common terns on the Detroit River, and more recently on Lake St. Clair. DZS staff monitor, improve and create suitable nesting habitats respectively on Grosse Ile, Belle Isle and the restored lighthouses on Lake St. Clair through a partnership with the Save Our South Channel Lights organization. Each year, staff members also attach colored leg bands to common tern chicks to monitor their movements in the Great Lakes.

Photo by Cher FajardoIn early July, several staff members successfully attached leg bands to more than 30 chicks at one of the lighthouses on Lake St. Clair. Gathering the flightless chicks is a hazardous time for staff as the adult terns swoop down to protect their young. Amid the squawking adult terns, DZS staff quickly and gently placed several chicks at a time into small holding corrals. Other staff then attached leg bands promptly and efficiently to avoid undue discomfort to the chicks. The chicks were then released close to where they were collected to avoid additional stress. A total of 118 chicks have been banded by DZS staff over the last two years.

This year, with water levels especially high Photo by Cher Fajardoin the Great Lakes, some common tern nesting sites have been flooded out. Thus, the nesting sites at the Lake St. Clair lighthouse and also on Belle Isle are particularly important. DZS staff have improved the habitat at both of these areas by clearing vegetation and, in the case of the Belle Isle colony, establishing a predator-proof fence. So far this season, two common tern chicks have fledged (reached sub-adulthood) at Belle Isle. In addition, the first chick from Belle Isle was banded. In the past several years, only one common tern chick has fledged at Belle Isle.

This year’s high water has also delayed the life cycles of many animals – including common terns – and more than 100 eggs still remained to hatch when we banded the first chicks on July 1. DZS staff will continue banding and monitoring to enhance common tern conservation.

– Paul Buzzard

Greenprint: Join us as we #ditchthebottle

Beth Wallace is the Manager of Sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Did you know that U.S. consumers go through 1,500 bottles of water every second? Of those 1,500 bottles, only 300 of them will be recycled. Unnecessary plastic pollution is a big reason why the Detroit Zoological Society is taking the bold step of phasing out the sale of bottled water – but it’s not the only reason.

When diving into this issue, we’ve also learned that most brand-named bottled water comes directly from the tap, our Great Lakes or even the Detroit River – costing consumers around 10,000 times the cost of tap water and diverting massive amounts of fresh water from the Great Lakes basin. In addition, there are an incredible amount of resources that go into producing one bottle of water and that single-use product remains in our environment anywhere from 500 to 1000 years.

As of September 2015, the Detroit Zoo will no longer sell bottled water. We ask that you join us to #ditchthebottle here at the Zoo and in your everyday lives. We encourage you bring reusable containers that can be refilled – for free – at any of our 20 refill stations during your visits to the Zoo. To help with this transition, we’re also offering a reusable sports drink container at all our major concessions, which costs less than bottled water.

Help us spread this message! We’ll be giving away two of our premium stainless steel reusable water bottles to our supporters. To win this reusable drink container, please connect with the Detroit Zoo on social media and share a photo of a place you would like to keep clean from plastic pollution. Tag the photo with #ditchthebottle and @detroitzoo on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The Zoo’s Green Team will pick two winners on July 14.

– Beth Wallace