The Fourth of July fireworks show will go on as planned in Old Orchard Beach on Thursday despite concerns about an endangered bird that was about to give birth to a brood of chicks nearby.

The piping plover’s nest was only 400 feet from where the fireworks are staged just south of the Palace Playland amusement park, sparking concerns that the explosions and the thousands of people expected to attend the traditional waterfront display could disrupt the birds and their nest.

Though the town’s weekly summer fireworks display was canceled last week, Town Manager Larry Mead said the holiday fireworks display will go on as planned Thursday because the chicks have hatched and the birds are expected to move away from the noise and crowds.

A baby piping plover wanders the area around its nest in Old Orchard Beach early last month. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“We’re going to be playing this week by week, but the fireworks are definitely on for the Fourth,” Mead said.

Old Orchard isn’t the only community concerned about the impact that fireworks and crowds can have on piping plovers, a protected species that nests on sandy beaches and can be threatened by human noise and activity.

In Scarborough, some residents are concerned that private fireworks set off illegally will harm the plovers that have been spotted on four public beaches.

And in Ogunquit, fireworks are launched from a spot away from the main beach, where 11 pairs of piping plovers have been spotted this summer.

There are currently a record 87 nesting plover pairs in Maine, according to Laura Minich Zitske, director of Maine Audubon’s Piping Plover and Least Term Project.

“But it’s still 87 nesting pairs in the entire state of Maine and not very many for an entire species,” she said.

Those numbers represent a record for the shorebird, which has been on the endangered species list since 1986. Until this spring, the number of nesting pairs had never surpassed 70 and had at one point reached a low of 24. Piping plovers require wide, open sand and dune grass to nest. The birds are endangered largely because of habitat loss.

A restricted area near piping plover nests on Old Orchard Beach. The roller coaster at Palace Playland is in the background. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Uncertainty about the Independence Day display surfaced in Old Orchard last week when the town canceled its Thursday night fireworks display, a summer tradition in this beachfront resort that draws thousands of visitors each week.

OOB365, a group of Old Orchard Beach businesses and private citizens, hinted at a brewing conflict with the nesting plover site on its Facebook page.

“Tonight’s fireworks (June 27) have been cancelled due to the nesting piping plovers along the beach. Fingers crossed for next week and the 4th of July,” OOB365 said in the post.

“Lo and behold, the chicks hatched overnight (June 27),” Mead said.

Mead met with officials from Maine Audubon and the state Friday and they agreed to set up a protective corridor around the plover nesting site on the night of July Fourth. Signs, twine and netting will make it clear that the area will be off-limits to the public, Mead said.

“Our biggest concern now is to give them the space they need and to keep them safe,” he said.

Mead concedes the plovers might leave their nesting site if the sound from the fireworks frightens them, but the plover chicks hatched last week should be able to follow their parents to other spots on the beach.

While the town and Maine Audubon plan to take precautions, Zitske said there is a chance that the parents and chicks will have moved to a new home by Thursday. The plovers that recently hatched near Palace Playland can’t yet fly, but they’ve already started moving south along the beach with their parents to safer areas.

“Hopefully, the fireworks should be able to go forward as planned,” she said.

Independence Day fireworks are one of the annual sources of concern for the plovers. Zitske said fireworks can scare parents away from newly hatched chicks that need to be kept warm, and Audubon employees have come across nests in the past only to find dead chicks.

Old Orchard Beach was packed on July 4, 2018. Press Herald file photo

Typically, the biggest concern about piping plovers and the Fourth of July is the crowds of people walking on the beach in the dark after the fireworks are over, Zitske said. In some areas, volunteers will stand guard to keep people from trampling over nesting areas in the dark.

“We have a ton of wonderful volunteers who will be out helping keep an eye on them,” Zitske said.

Zitske said it is up to the towns to work with state and federal agencies to make sure that the birds are not scared out of their nests.

Zitske, who also serves as director of the Coastal Bird Project, attributes the nesting success in large part to increased educational outreach to beachgoers, who must share the beaches with the bird.

The neighboring town of Scarborough also has had to deal with conflicts between beachgoers, dogs, fireworks and nesting plovers.

Karen D’Andrea, a former Scarborough town councilor and amateur bird enthusiast, said that people have illegally set off fireworks in the town’s Pine Point neighborhood where plover nesting sites have been established. It is against town ordinances to set off fireworks on Pine Point Beach, but people do it anyway, D’Andrea said.

“Here we are just allowing people willy-nilly to set off fireworks at the beach. It’s disturbing,” D’Andrea said. “There’s a lot of pressure on these little birds.”

Some residents expressed outrage last year when visitors to the beach set off large amounts of fireworks near nesting areas on Pine Point Beach, and then left behind huge piles of trash that the town had to clean up.

This year, there are piping plovers in Scarborough on Pine Point, Western/Ferry, Scarborough State Park and Higgins beaches.

Scarborough Town Manager Thomas Hall said fireworks are not allowed on public beaches in Scarborough, but it continues to be a challenge to enforce that restriction.

“We do have nesting plovers this year, which adds to the challenge here,” Hall said.

Hall said reserve officers will be on the beaches on July Fourth to help with enforcement and the town is focusing on educating people about the fireworks ordinance. Additionally, Phantom Fireworks met with town officials and offered to provide a dumpster to use to dispose of any fireworks debris that is collected.

“It would certainly be nice if residents and visitors did abide by the restrictions, yet we continue to have some challenges,” he said. “We’ll continue to educate people and do our best to make sure people are within the law.”

Scarborough is among the coastal beach towns that have been required to protect the migrating shorebird. In 2013, Scarborough approved a settlement with the federal government that resolved a dispute over the killing of a piping plover chick by an unleashed dog on Pine Point Beach.

Staff Writers Rob Wolfe and Joe Lawlor contributed to this story.

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