OLD ORCHARD BEACH — For the second consecutive year, the number of nesting piping plovers in Maine has climbed to record numbers. The Coastal Bird Project counted 83 nesting piping plovers this month, up from last year’s record of 68 and more than double the number of nesting pairs a decade ago.

It’s a positive trend for the shorebird, which has been on the endangered species list since 1986, said Coastal Bird Project Director Laura Minich Zitske. She’s an employee of Maine Audubon, which runs the program with support and funding from the state.

Bird Project staff attribute the piping plovers’ recent nesting success in Maine in large part to increased educational outreach to beachgoers who share the beaches where the birds nest.

Since 2015, Maine Audubon has counted more than 60 nesting piping plovers each spring. That good news follows eight straight years when the nesting pairs along the Maine coast hovered between a dismal 24 and 44, before jumping to 50. Until this spring, the number had never before surpassed 70. Maine biologists began counting nesting pairs in 1981.

BEACHFRONT REAL ESTATE

Piping plovers require wide, open sand and dune grass to nest; some pairs nest right on the beach. Unfortunately, beachgoing humans like the same spots. The birds are endangered largely because of habitat loss, caused by rapid East Coast development on the beaches they need to breed.

Once a bird nests, it takes about 25 days until the last egg is hatched, and a clutch may have up to four eggs. After that, it takes roughly another 30 days before the chicks can fly, a period that coincides with early summer, just when people are enjoying the beach. The fuzzy, golf-ball-sized chicks are incredibly mobile. Zitske has seen chicks just 4 days old move over a mile and cross a stream. Her job is to protect both the eggs and the tiny hatchlings.

But plovers are sensitive to human noise and disruption. If disturbed, the adults may abandon a nest with eggs, and, possibly, even chicks. Chicks that are frequently disturbed also take longer to fledge as they spend more time fleeing than foraging. All manner of commotion, from town workers raking the beaches to keep them clean of seaweed to the Fourth of July fireworks displays, must be carefully managed by municipalities in accordance with federal guidelines to protect the birds.

Likewise, managing the human population at a crowded beach like Old Orchard – where Zitske and seasonal biologist Ashley Price walked one day in early June to check on the birds and interact with the public – is a critical component to managing the plover population. Putting up rope around the nests and signs that explain how to avoid the birds – and approaching people to explain these measures – has been key to helping the birds, Zitske said.

“After we started educating people more, and collaborating with volunteers and the Warden Service, it’s helped,” Zitske said. “Luck is part of it, too. But I attribute a lot to the volunteers.”

Nancy and Rob Drake, summer residents of Ocean Park, look for piping plovers at Old Orchard Beach, where several nests have been discovered this spring. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Since 2014, the number of volunteer programs aimed at protecting nesting plovers has grown at some of the 20 beaches Maine Audubon oversees, including at Higgins, Pine Point and Ferry beaches in Scarborough. There are new and developing programs in Kennebunkport, Saco and Old Orchard Beach.

Twenty-six beaches in all are monitored for piping plover habitat and nesting pairs by Maine Audubon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maine Warden Service.

Fortunately, protecting the birds often equates with protecting the beaches, Zitske said.

“I always say a happy beach makes happy birds as well as happy beach lovers,” she said. “You want to restrict foot traffic through the dunes, because healthy dunes create healthy beaches – the dunes store the sand so that winter storms don’t wash all the sand away.”

A WALK ON THE BEACH

As Zitske organized her crew at Old Orchard Beach for the annual nest count on June 7, Ty Sutton, who works for Palace Playland, approached. Sutton had noticed some piping plovers, possibly the pair that is nesting near the amusement park’s roller coaster.

“Are there many back this year?” he asked.

After answering his question, Zitske took the opportunity to engage. If nesting is unsuccessful, the adult pair will try to nest a second time in the same season. But much better that they succeed the first time, she said, so that they’ll leave the busy beach sooner.

Farther south of the Old Orchard Beach pier, Price searched for nesting pairs. Raoul Beaulieu, a resident of Old Orchard Beach with a lilting French-Canadian accent, took a break from his morning run to approach. He’d noticed more protective twine north of the pier. Like Sutton, Beaulieu wanted to know if that meant more nesting pairs.

Signs are posted around an area at Old Orchard Beach where several piping plover nests have been identified this spring. As high tourism season approaches, biologists are nervous about the nesting birds’ proximity to the pier and the heart of Old Orchard Beach. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

More birds appear to be trying to nest, Price said. And she repeated: As an endangered species, the birds need to be watched carefully and protected from disturbances. She pointed to a nearby dog on a leash, a good practice, but the dog was not supposed to be on the beach during the day. That rule is outlined on signs, but often ignored, Price said. (The issue of whether to allow dogs on coastal beaches has a long, heated history in southern Maine. It came to a head in 2013 when an unleashed dog killed a piping plover on Pine Point Beach. After the Town Council settled with the federal government, it enacted an ordinance requiring dogs on town property to be leashed at all times.)

Still, problems persist. Before Price had a chance to educate the dog owner, she ran into Rick Reny of the Old Orchard Beach Public Works Department and Louie Ladakakos, a local volunteer. They’d brought new signs that read: “Please walk your dog on a leash or enjoy another area of the beach with your pet.”

Price was pleased with the sign. But she asked the men to hammer them onto stakes on the street, to avoid making noise near the plover nesting in the dune grass.

“This nest here is about to hatch, and we don’t want to disturb it anymore than we have to,” she said.

A baby piping plover wanders down to the water near its nest in Old Orchard Beach earlier this month. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

COMPETITION FOR TERRITORY

The endangered piping plovers have many fans.

“The birds are charming and a draw for tourists, not to mention us locals that value having them on our beaches,” Zitske said. “In my 10 years of doing this work I can confidently say that more people love having these precious birds on their beach than those that do not. In particular, I find tourists are often thrilled to find these fluffy chicks running around the beach where they are lounging.”

But for some, piping plover enthusiasm has its limits.

Just north of the pier, Charlene Weinstein waited to speak to the two biologists in front of the beach house where she has lived since 1985. New stakes have extended the area where the birds have been protected in the past, Weinstein said. And when the rope is up, the town won’t clear away the seaweed that the ocean deposits at high tide. The resulting mess hurts local businesses that rely on tourism, she said.

(In 2015, after an unusual amount of wind and surf resulted in a lot of seaweed washing up on beaches, the public outcry about the mess became so heated, Biddeford town councilors dubbed the situation “Seaweedgate.”)

“I have no issue with this when they’re nesting, but where are they nesting? I haven’t seen any scratching in three days,” Weinstein said. “This is a tourist town. At what point is it overprotection when tourism is how this town survives?”

Price and Zitske listened to Weinstein’s concerns, and Zitske assured her that she’d seen a plover in the area days earlier, possibly preparing a nest. Maine Audubon crews check the area two to three times a week, Price said. Weinstein listened patiently, but remained unconvinced. Then Zitske said what Weinstein was waiting to hear.

“If we don’t see chicks we’ll take down the rope,” Zitske said. “But if we do, we’ll leave it up, just because protecting the birds is our job.”

It’s work that is unlikely to end.

According to National Audubon’s climate model, sea level rising is likely to become another critical issue for the small, coastal-dependent bird. National Audubon predicts that by 2080, the piping plover will lose more than 29 percent of its winter range and just 38 percent of its original breeding range will remain.