Piping plovers have returned to Maine’s sandy beaches, prompting federal officials to ask beachgoers and dog owners to keep their distance from the small shorebirds and their nesting grounds.

Maine’s first two nests of the 2015 season were spotted Monday – one in Kennebunk and one in Biddeford – according to an advisory issued Tuesday by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Both nests had at least two eggs as of Tuesday.

The protected migratory birds build nests in the dry sand just below the dunes. The nests are hard-to-spot depressions in the sand and the eggs are sand-colored, camouflage that protects them from predators but makes them vulnerable to people who don’t realize they are there.

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

In addition to asking for caution, wildlife advocates also are asking for help identifying birds that have been banded as part of a migration study.

“We’re excited to ask beachgoers this year to help us watch for piping plovers with pink flags on their legs, a sign that the bird has flown to Maine from the Bahamas,” Maine Audubon wildlife ecologist Laura Minich Zitske said in the news release issued by the federal agency. “We still have a lot to learn about the birds when they leave our breeding grounds for wintering areas. In addition to pink flags, Mainers can look out for green flags on birds banded in South Carolina or Georgia and for gray or black flags on birds from Canada.”

Predation and the loss of nesting habitat put the population in jeopardy, but protection efforts have had success. Barely two dozen chicks survived to fly away from Maine beaches in 2005, while nearly 100 plover chicks took flight last year.

Piping plovers are protected as endangered in Maine and as threatened under federal law. While each beach has its own rules to protect the birds, federal guidelines request that pets be leashed and under control of their owners at all times from April 1 to Aug. 31 on beaches with plovers. Some areas prohibit dogs starting April 1 every year, including Ogunquit Beach, Crescent Beach State Park in Cape Elizabeth, Ferry Beach State Park in Saco, Scarborough Beach State Park, Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg and Reid State Park in Georgetown.

The federal and state agencies have cooperative beach management agreements with the Bureau of Parks and Lands and the towns of Wells, Ogunquit, Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough.

Beachgoers are asked to:

n Respect all areas fenced or posted for protection of wildlife.

n Watch plovers from a distance to avoid disturbing them.

n Follow local pet ordinances. Dogs are predators of plovers. Federal guidelines recommend leashing even if not required by local ordinances.

n Take trash or food scraps off the beach. Garbage attracts predators that may prey upon piping plover eggs or chicks.

n Volunteer and report bird sightings.

If you find a plover nest, or would like to volunteer for the Piping Plover Recovery Project, contact Laura Minich Zitske at [email protected] or (207) 233-6811 or MDIFW at (207) 657-2345.

If you see one of the plovers with a pink or other colored flag, please report the following information to [email protected]: the date and specific location the bird was observed, band code, latitude and longitude, a photo if possible, and any other noted information.