Southern Maine coastal communities are seeing a record number of Piping Plover nesting pairs this summer. The tiny shoreline birds have been endangered since 1986. COURTESY PHOTO/Marissa Haase, US Fish and Wildlife Service

OLD ORCHARD BEACH  — Biologists are baffled by a record number of Piping Plover nests along the York County coastline this year and are working to keep the nests and chicks safe as thousands of beachgoers will descend upon plover nesting areas this summer.

A count of 87 nests along the coast discovered by biologists and volunteer monitors from Maine Audubon, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has significantly shattered last summer’s all-time record of 68 nests by more than 20. It’s also a mystery why Maine is experiencing such a surge in nesting plovers compared to surrounding states which are not reporting increases.

“Our efforts to help keep their nests and chicks protected from disturbance have definitely played a role in the increase,” said Laura Minich Zitske, director of the Maine Audubon’s Coastal Bird Project. “But I think our education efforts with our many partners deserve a lot of credit.”

The piping plover is a small sand-colored, sparrow-sized shorebird that nests and feeds along coastal sand and gravel beaches in North America. Adult plovers have yellow-orange-red legs, a black band across the forehead from eye to eye, and a black stripe running along the breast line.

The bird is endangered because many of the coastal beaches traditionally used by piping plovers for nesting have been lost to commercial, residential, and recreational developments. The plovers also are extremely sensitive to the presence of humans as too much disturbance causes the parent birds to abandon their nest.

Humans using the beaches where the birds nest sometimes accidentally crush plover eggs or young birds and dogs and cats often kill the small birds. Other predators such as foxes, gulls, and crows feast on the young plovers or eggs.

The Coastal Bird Project has been working for 35 years with southern coastal Maine towns to protect the plovers while co-existing with beachgoers and tourists.

Zitske and a crew of five are currently working with six towns to manage about 150 volunteers who help monitor and educate the public about plover beaches.

She said this year 26 beaches in 11 different southern Maine coastal communities are hosting nesting piping plovers.

Since 1981, Maine Audubon has worked with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service, local plover coordinators, and volunteers to promote the recovery of the Piping Plover, which was first federally listed as threatened and endangered in 1986. When it became clear that development and beach encroachment would continue to decrease the amount of available plover habitat, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife took measures to protect Piping Plover habitat under the Maine Endangered Species Act in 1994.

The Endangered Species Act at the state and federal level remains an integral component of piping plover protection, ensuring that critical habitat is managed and maintained to ensure sustained recovery of the species.

The Piping Plover and Least Tern Recovery Project is a cooperative effort launched by Maine Audubon, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, as well as local municipalities, Zitske said.

In addition to conducting outreach and informing the public on how to live alongside an endangered species, the project facilitates plover recovery by creating wire-mesh exclosures around nesting sites. Exclosures are built and carefully monitored by trained wildlife biologists and volunteers.

Biologists have estimated that before the demolition of the species as a result of feather and egg collecting in the 1800s, and the modern threat of encroaching development, some 200 pairs of Piping Plovers nested in the state of Maine each year. But by the time the Audubon project launched in 1981, only 10 nesting pairs were detected then.

The success of this year demonstrates a renewed source of hope that Piping Plover can thrive once more on Maine’s sandy shores. Small lifestyle changes and increasing awareness among residents and visitors will make a huge difference in the fate of these rare and resilient birds.

Keeping the nests and chicks safe is no small task.

“Plover chicks are flightless but extremely mobile. Our team has recorded chicks at distances up to two miles from their nests, making it impossible to predict where and how far a chick may wander,” said Henry Jones of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “With this in mind, caution should be exercised on all areas of the beach, even far from fenced off areas. The best way people can promote plover recovery is to give them the space and respect they need.”

As of Sunday, 12 pairs of nesting plover were identified by the project in Ogunquit, with one pair in Moody, eight in Wells, one pair on Drakes Island, two pairs on Laudholm Farm, and six pairs on Kennebunk beaches. Project volunteers also identified five nesting plover pairs on Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport, four pairs on Fortune Rocks Beach in Biddeford, two pairs on Hills Beach, one pair on Goosefare Brook, one pair in Ocean Park and five pairs in Old Orchard Beach.

Nesting plover pairs have also been discovered in Pine Point (1); Western/Ferry (8), Scarborough State Park (2); Higgins (6); Ram Island (1), Crescent State Park (1); Popham State Park (10); Sewall (7); and Reid State Park (3).

Project volunteers suggest a few simple practices when at the beach to assist in protecting the plovers, including keeping dogs leashed and away from nesting areas, flying kites away from nesting sites to prevent plovers from abandoning their nest after mistaking a kite for a predator, removing trash to avoid attracting foxes, gulls, and other predators to nesting areas, and filling in holes to protect plover chicks from falling in and becoming trapped.

For beachgoers wanting to share concern for piping plover safety at a beach they may be visiting this summer, call the Maine Warden Service at 287-8000 or the Piping Plover Recovery Project Team at 233-6811.

— Executive Editor Ed Pierce can be reached at 282-1535 or by email at [email protected]

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