Long an attraction for French-Canadian tourists and french-fry lovers, Old Orchard Beach has become a summertime destination for a more surprising breed of beachgoer: endangered birds.

A record number of piping plover chicks fledged this summer from nests on the sandy beach north of the pier and Palace Playland, a destination better known for crinkle fries and carnival rides, putting Maine’s answer to the Jersey Shore among the state’s top nesting spots for the protected species.

There’s no known reason for the birds’ sudden interest in Old Orchard’s heavily used beach. The birds build nests and lay eggs in the open sand on the upper beach and are vulnerable to human activity.

“We were sort of mystified why so many birds were there to begin with,” said Mark McCollough, endangered species specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Maine Field Office.

The seven nesting pairs of migratory birds arrived on the beach in the spring, unaware of the beach party that was about to break out around them when the weather warmed up.

McCollough said officials work hard to protect the birds’ nests so they don’t have to relocate them and so their chicks can hatch early enough to fledge before the beach is overrun with sunbathers and Frisbee players.

This year, seven plover pairs nested on the beach and 16 chicks survived, besting last year’s record of 10 chicks, which were hatched from five nesting pairs.

For the previous three decades that Maine Audubon has monitored plovers, there were never more than two nesting pairs of plovers on Old Orchard’s 7 miles of beach.

As of last week, preliminary numbers from Maine Audubon showed that only Wells, Kennebunk and Phippsburg had as many or more chicks fledge from their beaches than Old Orchard had. None had as many on a single stretch of beach.

Two other pairs nested in Old Orchard – one pair in the Ocean Park section didn’t produce chicks, and another left town to nest on Pine Point beach in Scarborough.

NESTING SPOTS MARKED FOR PROTECTION

The migratory birds nest in Maine from the state’s southern border north to Georgetown.

Just 7 inches tall and weighing a mere 2 ounces fully grown, piping plovers were once common along the Atlantic coastline but have been driven to near extinction by habitat loss and plumage hunters. Today there are fewer than 2,000 breeding pairs of the tiny shorebirds on the Eastern Seaboard, earning them designations as a “threatened” species at the federal level and “endangered” in Maine.

Plover parents begin setting up nests in April, and biologists, with the help of beach communities such as Old Orchard, mark nest sites with stakes and signs so they aren’t disturbed.

Piping plovers hatch in Maine throughout the summer and take about 25 days to fledge – or begin to fly. They can live for 14 years.

All of Old Orchard’s 16 chicks have fledged and flown away. However, Maine’s plover season isn’t over until late August and chicks were still hatching this week elsewhere in the state, said Laura Minich Zitske, wildlife ecologist for Maine Audubon.

The numbers in Old Orchard, she said, are notable because of the amount of development there.

The town hasn’t been doing anything different to protect the birds than it has for the past 30 years, said Melissa Hutchins of the Old Orchard Beach public works department.

“I think people are more aware of the birds,” and therefore might be more careful not disturb their nests, she said.

CREDITING OLD ORCHARD’S EFFORTS

McCollough said birds sometimes return to beaches where they were previously successful, and they can be drawn to an area where there is already a core group, despite the fact that they’re territorial.

“There’s sort of security in numbers,” he said.

The plover baby boom in Old Orchard, while a surprise to observers, is part of an upward trend statewide. As protection efforts increase, plovers have been returning to Maine’s southern and midcoast beaches in larger numbers than they have for years.

Nearly 100 plover chicks took flight from Maine beaches last year, more than any other year in the past decade and up from just two dozen in 2005. This summer looks like another healthy one for the birds.

“We will ultimately walk away with at least 100 chicks fledged,” Zitske said about this year, although she won’t have a better idea about the actual number until mid-August. The highest count since monitoring began in Maine in 1981 was 109 fledglings in 2001.

Even though there are more plovers everywhere in the state, Zitske says Old Orchard Beach deserves more credit than it’s taking.

“The town has worked really hard and it has paid off,” she said.