By Georgie Lellman
For five Wisconsin piping plovers, Illinois was a safe haven for a time this summer. Biologists rescued five birds from their home in the Cat Islands near Green Bay, Wis., on July 24, and brought them to Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, which borders Lake Michigan, just south of the Wisconsin-Illinois state line. The plovers, which are federally classified as an endangered species in the Great Lakes region, faced fatal risks at their home.
The reason for the relocation? An outbreak of botulism in Green Bay, which had already taken the lives of many ducks and shorebirds, as well as some piping plover chicks—more than 100 birds according to Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Brad Semel. Botulism affects nerve endings and impacts muscle movement, which causes birds to become lethargic and weak and often results in drowning in infected waterbirds.
On this World Shorebirds Day, it’s worth a closer look at botulism, one of the greatest threats facing shorebirds and other taxa in the Great Lakes. The botulism in this case is type C, which the USGS explains is caused by “a natural toxin produced by a bacterium (Clostridium botulinum) commonly found in the soil.” Botulism spores are abundant in soils and aquatic sediments in many of the Great Lakes. Michigan Sea Grant remarks that “under the right conditions, the spores germinate and begin growing the toxin-producing bacterial cells.” The botulism is concentrated in invertebrates, which feed on water and sediments containing the bacteria. Shorebirds ingest the invertebrates—and large concentrations of the botulism toxin—and the effect on nerves and muscles takes hold.
Increased water temperatures and seiches—a periodic rising and lowering of water levels in an enclosed or semi-enclosed body of water—create conditions ripe for botulism. The lake bed can be exposed amid the shallow waters of southern Green Bay and waves can pick up and distribute the toxin. With global air and water temperatures increasing, including temperatures in the Great Lakes region, there is an increased potential for botulism outbreaks, placing greater harm on the endangered shorebird species, like piping plovers, which depend on safe, healthy, and consistent habitats for survival. While the Green Bay piping plovers—four juveniles and one adult—were quickly relocated to northern Illinois, many others were not recovered in time.
At the time that the plovers were relocated to Illinois Beach, they were greeted by a now-famous Illinois piping plover, “Monty,” who had wandered north from Montrose Beach in Chicago. Monty was first seen in Illinois at nearby Waukegan Beach in 2017 and then attempted to nest there with “Rose” in 2018.
Since being rescued, at least two of the relocated piping plovers also made their way to Waukegan Beach before presumably heading away for the season. With any luck, both Monty and the relocated piping plovers will endure their lengthy migrations south and return to their Illinois breeding grounds next year!
Georgie Lellman is a recent graduate of Kenyon College and an intern for Turnstone Strategies, which produced the film “Monty and Rose.” She is interested in environmental law and passionate about wildlife issues. Contact Georgie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michigan Sea Grant, “Avian Botulism”
Fox 11 News, “Endangered piping plovers relocated to avoid bird-killing bacteria”
USGS, “Avian Botulism”
Chicago Tribune, “Young piping plovers from Wisconsin released in Lake County to aid their southerly migration”
Juvenile plover photos courtesy Gustavo Ustariz.
Dori Levine has been a plover monitor for the past two years at Chicago’s Montrose Beach. She joined us to share the story of her tattoo of Rose and her thoughts on the 2020 season. When not monitoring plovers, Dori works in Accounts Receivable for a facilities management company.
Q: How did you become a plover monitor?
DL: I was newly a birder. Even when I was younger, I remember my 5th grade teacher talking about an adopt a baby seal program. I was into learning about endangered animals in general. There was a call out that there were endangered plovers at Montrose Beach and if anyone wanted to help watch this endangered species. I was just interested and jumped right in. They sent out a packet [about plover monitoring], and I soaked it up like a sponge.
Q: Why did you get a tattoo of Rose?
DL: I always wanted a tattoo but never knew what I really wanted. It was hard to pick just one thing that I would always love. I enjoyed the time learning about these birds [in 2019] and felt like a mama bear with the chicks and had an affinity with Monty and Rose. And the fact that they were successful and that they might just come back…I was so hopeful. I thought I’d love to see a plover all the time. I’ve always been a water person and a shorebird made sense, especially a piping plover and Rose.
Q: Why Rose and not Monty? Was it something about her in particular?
DL: I love Rose. I thought it was funny last year when she was not leaving, and Monty had to fight her to leave. I was drawn more to Rose. I liked how her [neck] band was thicker and not straight and a little rough around the edges. For whatever reason I thought that she was a little feisty mama and I liked that. So I do call my tattoo Rose in honor of her.
I never looked back I just thought [the tattoo] reminded me of the whole experience and my love for this bird I never even knew existed before. After volunteering for the 2019 piping plover watch, I felt like it was a way to memorialize this time for me.
Q: What are your thoughts looking back on two years of piping plover monitoring and Monty and Rose?
DL: I think I was much more stressed last year. There were dogs—off-leash and on-leash—volleyballs, predators and lots of people around. It was a lot to keep track of, especially when the chicks were just running all over the place. It was a little more stressful.
This year—man did they choose a great nesting site—but it was hard to watch them on the nest. You were literally looking for a head or tail between two slices of grass. ‘Who’s here is it Monty or Rose?’ You couldn’t see who was who. It was so difficult to see.
But it was less stressful with less people on the beach, less animals, no balls, and no music. For the most part it was a pretty calm time. I think all the volunteers would agree with that. I for one thought it was a privilege to be at the beach. To me birdwatching is meditative. It was a privilege just to be out there and being able to learn about them.