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

Nesting pairs of endangered piping plovers have fledged 165 chicks so far this summer, a 29 percent increase over last year and a new record for the state, Maine Audubon reported Tuesday.

The number of piping plovers nesting along the Maine coast jumped by more than 30 percent from last summer, also a record, the group said.

But the protections that have helped the population recover must stay in place to prevent it from crashing again, state officials warn.

“The total number of nesting pairs is just incredible, and it gives us great productivity and tons of piping plover out there,” said Laura Minich Zitske with Maine Audubon, the director of Maine’s Piping Plover Project.

The most recent state tally found 89 nesting pairs of piping plovers on Maine beaches – up from 68 last year, the previous record set since the state began counting the shorebirds in 1981. The nesting pairs this year so far have produced a record-number 165 fledgling chicks, up from last year’s previous record of 128. And there are still more chicks on the ground, so the number could continue to rise, according to Henry Jones, with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which coordinates the plover project.

Jones said the work by federal, state and local agencies in the past 10 years to protect the plover, which has been on the federal endangered species list since 1986, is likely why the number of nesting pairs has gone up the past two years. IFW and its partners, which include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maine Audubon, spent more than $233,000 in 2018 on piping plover protection, which includes the value of work done by volunteers, Jones said.

He said if Maine ever stepped away from assisting with plover recovery and protecting the threatened shorebird, the species’ numbers could drop very quickly.

Piping plovers require sandy beaches to nest. Jones said the three biggest threats the species faces are the loss of habitat from development, human disturbance on beaches where people recreate, and predators, such as loose dogs. But human activity is not the only hindrance to piping plovers successfully nesting on sandy beaches. Storms or astronomically high tides that wash away beaches destroy nesting habitat. Rising sea levels are another problem.

“That’s a major threat that is not going away,” Jones said. “There is still more habitat out there, so Maine could support more birds. We’re still trying to figure out the balance with human demand. A lot of humans use the beaches, and the amount of sand on the beaches varies year to year. It’s a species that requires intense management.”

Fifteen years ago, the number of nesting pairs was in the low 60s, Jones said. Then the Maine population suddenly crashed in 2008, dropping to 24. That’s when Maine agencies worked with towns to increase protection efforts. He said this year’s new record of 89 nesting pairs still is not many – Massachusetts has around 700 nesting pairs.

Zitske, who coordinates Maine Audubon biologists and volunteers at 20 Maine beaches, agreed. Considering there are fewer than 2,000 nesting pairs within the species range, from the Carolinas to Newfoundland, she said, much work remains.

“Our tremendous success of 89 pairs is still not really enough to make a huge difference in the whole (East Coast) population,” Zitske said. “But it’s promising that we’re making progress.”

Jones and Zitske believe the beach-management agreements with municipalities that spell out protocols and steps to provide more protection, such as hiring staff to help monitor beaches and creating volunteer monitoring programs, have helped the birds and resulted in more nesting pairs the past few years.

Since 2008, five coastal Maine towns have signed beach-management agreements with either IFW or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the two agencies that suggest protocols to help protect the piping plover. The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, which manages five beaches along the southern and central Maine coast, also has such an agreement, Jones said.

One small example of success is the pair of adult plovers that were nesting in front of Old Orchard Beach’s Palace Playland as sunbathers and Fourth of July crowds poured into town and onto the beach. Zitske said that pair moved its three chicks after the July Fourth celebration, two miles down the beach and across a brook, where two of them survived to the point of fledging. And at Ocean Park, those two chicks persevered.

“They did fine. They didn’t seem to be bothered by the noise and the chaos, or the delicious smell of fried dough,” Zitske said. “We see that quite frequently. The parents nest on Old Orchard Beach, and move to a quieter spot once the crowds arrive.”

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