July 18, 2013

Dog's owner steps forward in killing of protected Maine bird

A game warden says he is working with authorities to decide what, if any, charges should be brought in the attack at Pine Point Beach.

By Karen Antonacci kantonacci@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH — The owner of the dog that killed a piping plover chick on Pine Point Beach this week has come forward and is cooperating in the investigation, the Maine Warden Service said Wednesday.

click image to enlarge

A sign on Pine Point Beach in Scarborough on Wednesday indicates a plover nesting location, and a prohibition on unleashed dogs. Piping plovers are classified as an endangered species by the state and a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Maine has just 47 nesting pairs of piping plovers.

Carl D. Walsh / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

An adult plover stands close by a nesting plover chick.

Photo by Amanda Reed / Maine Audubon Society

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The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said Tuesday that a witness told a Maine Audubon volunteer that the dog owner was warned and did nothing to stop the attack on the rare bird.

But Wednesday, Sgt. Tim Spahr of the warden service said interviews with witnesses showed that was untrue secondhand information.

"It appears there was no interaction between the owner and anybody else. This was just a quick act (by) the dog, and the dog owner attempted to control the dog," Spahr said. "We are working with people at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife ... to determine if and what charges may be applicable."

Spahr said the dog appeared to be a mixed breed. He did not identify the owner, but said the person lives in Scarborough for at least part of the year.

Harming an endangered or threatened species is a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine ranging from $500 to $1,000. Spahr said the case will be reviewed in the next two weeks, but jail time is unlikely.

Piping plovers are classified as an endangered species by the state and a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Maine has just 47 nesting pairs of piping plovers.

The chick's body has been taken as evidence. Spahr said a necropsy probably won't be done because the process is expensive and there isn't much doubt about the cause of the bird's death.

The fledgling had almost reached adulthood when it was killed around 10 a.m. Monday, said Laura Minich Zitske, a wildlife biologist with Maine Audubon in Falmouth.

The small shorebirds need sandy beaches to nest. Maine Audubon workers use stakes and twine to mark spots on beaches where piping plovers nest.

The area where the plover was killed is on the south end of Pine Point Beach. It was still marked Wednesday by stakes and twine and a sign saying "Restricted Area," but there was no barrier between it and the nearby people on the beach.

"We put up the (stakes and lines) mostly as a symbolic gesture, just to warn people that (plovers) are there, and we only put it in areas where we've seen" the birds, said Traczie Bellinger, a seasonal biologist with Maine Audubon.

When chicks hatch, they are about the size of cotton balls and run around the beach to feed, rather than waiting for their parents to bring in food. The adult birds sometimes pretend to be injured to distract predators away from the chicks, Zitske said. One of the dead chick's parents was seen Tuesday near the mouth of the Scarborough River.

A town ordinance passed in 2000 allows unleashed dogs on the beach from sunrise to 9 a.m. A separate ordinance, passed in 2001 to protect piping plovers, says dogs must be kept at least 150 feet from any marked nesting site.

Bellinger said that as long as people respect the piping plovers while walking their dogs or relaxing on the beach, Audubon workers won't fault them for being near the restricted areas.

Zitske asked dog owners not to take their dogs off their leashes near the nesting areas.

"This species is limited on where it can nest, and I know it seems like the beach is not the best place for them, but it's their only option," Zitske said. "It's important that the beaches are for everybody and people can enjoy them; we just have to make sure there are safeguards for the wildlife."

The piping plover is about 7 inches long and has a wingspan of 15 inches. The birds have sand-colored backs, white underbellies and orange legs. They nest in sparse grass near beaches from April to June on the Atlantic coast, from Newfoundland to South Carolina.

Just south of Pine Point Beach, three piping plovers reached fledgling size last week in Old Orchard Beach, and two more made it to adulthood in Saco.

Karen Antonacci can be contacted at 791-6377 or at:

kantonacci@pressherald.com

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