The jetty path to Wells Beach is closed because a piping plover nested in it. There are a record number of piping plovers nesting at Maine beaches this year. Wells Beach has nine nests, with seven of those active. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The piping plovers, at least, are having a good spring.

Maine Audubon has spotted 100 pairs and 61 active nests so far this year, a positive sign for the spring nesting season. Last year, the group reported 89 nesting pairs and 175 fledged chicks, which was a record for Maine. The tiny beachcombers have been rebounding for years but remain endangered in Maine.

A piping plover forages on Wells Beach on Saturday. There are a record number of the endangered shorebirds nesting in Maine this year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“We’re getting a lot of nests,” said Maine Audubon’s Laura Minich Zitske, director of the Piping Plover and Least Tern Project. “More and more every single day.”

The pandemic has changed beach traffic in southern Maine during a critical time for the plovers, but the effect has been different based on beach and town. Plovers start arriving in Maine in March and begin to nest in late April. The first chicks hatch in late May, and they continue in June and July. They usually spend a month on the ground before they can fly.

Some beaches have been open and experiencing more visitors than usual. Brad Zitske, a wildlife biologist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who is married to Laura Minich Zitske, said he was worried when stir-crazy crowds flocked to the state’s coastal parks earlier than usual.

“They seemed like a mid-June weekend in March,” he said.

Other beaches have been closed for weeks, so the birds have been able to nest with little interference. But when people return to those beaches, they might find nests in irregular places. On Wells Beach, a nest has closed a popular path, so people will need to use other access points.

Plovers start arriving in Maine in March and begin to nest in late April. The first chicks hatch in late May, and they continue in June and July. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“The birds really don’t know where the people are going to be,” Laura Minich Zitske said. “Normally, there would be some foot traffic in some areas, even on a crummy-weather day in the spring, that would tell the birds that this is not a good place to commit to.”

She credits the growth in the plover population to partnerships between Maine Audubon and the state, as well as the efforts of volunteers and towns to protect the birds. More than two dozen beaches are monitored right now for plovers. As those areas reopen in the coming weeks, experts said visitors should be considerate of the birds.

Many but not all nests are marked with signs and fencing. Experts said observers should give the birds and their babies space, wherever they are on the sand. Towns and beaches have varied requirements – for example, on whether dogs are allowed – so visitors should do their research ahead of time and pay attention to signs.

“The chick stage is the most adorable and charming,” Laura Minich Zitske said. “They’re little fluffy cotton balls, and it’s fun when families sitting on the beach get to watch an endangered species grow before their eyes. But it’s also when they’re the most vulnerable because they move all over the beach.”

So social distancing can help the plovers stay safe, too.

“Definitely use caution,” Brad Zitske said. “We don’t want to take a step backwards, even though we are on this upward trajectory.”

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