SIGNS LIKE THE ONE above denote piping plover nesting grounds at Reid State Park in Georgetown. The birds return each spring to make their nests in the grassy areas near the dunes on the beach.

SIGNS LIKE THE ONE above denote piping plover nesting grounds at Reid State Park in Georgetown. The birds return each spring to make their nests in the grassy areas near the dunes on the beach.

GEORGETOWN

Piping plovers have returned to Maine, and the small, migratory birds are busy building their nests along Midcoast beaches. The Maine Audubon Society keeps count of each piping plover across the state and spends time each spring placing signs and building fences to keep the nests safe.

Piping plovers return to Maine in mid-April from their winter grounds in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico and begin building their nests in May. They choose sparsely grassed areas between sand dunes and beaches, which must be cordoned off and posted with signs to avoid foot traffic.

The nests themselves are little more than scrapes in the sand and are easily missed.

Often, conservationists will construct a protective cage-like structure called an “exclosure” around a nest that allows the diminutive birds to come and go as they please as a way to combat predation.

Even with those protections, which Audubon has been installing at Reid State Park in Georgetown and Popham Beach in Phippsburg, plovers are still at risk.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the birds, hunted for their feathers, were nearly wiped out by the late 1800s. The population began to recover thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 but suffered losses in the 20th century as more beach development occurred.

Today, there are about 2,000 nesting pairs along the Atlantic coast.

Piping plovers are considered threatened in the U.S. and endangered in Maine. The need to protect the birds on public beaches in Maine, particularly in York County, has ruffled feathers between conservationists and volunteers, and property owners, beachgoers and dog walkers.

Laura Minich Zitske — who heads up the Audubon’s Piping Plover and Least Tern Project — said that the 2017 plover nesting season has been just a step slower than last year, mostly due to weather constraints.

“It’s been rainy and cold so far, and in some ways it doesn’t bother the birds at all, but it might slow them down,” said Zitske, who sent a crew to comb Reid State Park for plover nests on Thursday.

“Certainly one of the challenges is the rain makes them harder to detect,” said Zitske. “It largely depends on tracking, and when all the sand is wet and blown over we can’t find plover tracks. That makes it harder to detect where they are interested in nesting. When the weather is nice we follow tracks to scrapes — which are practice nests — and those lead us to the real nests.”

Zitske said she found a nest at Popham Beach, and her crew found a pair of plovers at Reid State Park, though those birds have yet to build a nest. There are 60 total nests across Maine, though only one in Ogunquit contains hatched chicks. Zitske said that recent astronomical high tides coupled with heavy rainfall washed away 21 nests, but none of the birds were harmed.

“It’s unfortunate because it means more energy for the birds to rebuild and for us to track them, but they’ll go right back at it,” said Zitske.

At Reid State Park on Thursday, Audubon biologist Erin Bucci was busy fencing off nesting areas and putting up signs warning the public of plovers. Though the plovers detected earlier in the week were not seen, Thursday was dry enough to find some scrapes, Bucci said.

“They’ll scrape the sand until they choose what area they like, and once they lay an egg, the nest is official,” said Bucci. “We probably won’t see any chicks for another month up here.”

Bucci said the key for the plovers is finding that middle ground so they’re safe from predators and won’t get washed away.

“They’re smart birds,” Bucci said. “They’ve got it figured out. This beach habitat is tough but they make it work.”

To learn more about piping plovers and how to avoid their nesting grounds, visit maineaudubon.org.

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