Piping Plovers, an endangered species in Maine, make their nests on the beach in the summer. Maine Audubon wants beach visitors to do their part in making sure these birds are undisturbed, like making sure children and adults are giving nests and eggs space. Melissa Kim courtesy photo

CAPE ELIZABETH – Piping plovers, small sand-colored birds, face risk of extinction in Maine and could use a bit of help in keeping their nests, which are made along Maine beaches, safe from human disruption.

An endangered species in Maine, these seasonal birds lay eggs in the sand, nesting in front of dunes, said Francesca Gundrum, seasonal biologist and outreach specialist at Maine Audubon. Maine Audubon is the state’s largest wildlife conservation organization.

At Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough beaches, there are about 40 chicks in total this year.

Many piping plovers do not make it past their first years, Gundrum said. Maine Audubon, in partnership with the state and local volunteers, has made improvements in the past few years to keep the birds around.

This year has seen record high numbers of piping plovers at more than 20 of the state beaches that the organization observes with the state, said Melissa Kim, director of communications and marketing at Maine Audubon.

Maine is fortunate to have these little birds on its beaches, Gundrum said, as they are also beneficial to the habitat.

“Not only are these incredible and special birds in our state, they help us keep these beaches healthy,” she said. “The nests help the dune grass thrive. And plovers eat the bugs that can be annoying for the beachgoers.”

Piping Plover chicks at Popham Beach. Ariana van den Akker courtesy photo

Despite the increase in population this year, Maine Audubon has also seen many beachgoers exhibiting “problematic behavior,” either by picking up eggs and/or chicks or simply not giving the birds enough space, Kim said.

“Our scientists are seeing plover chicks die as stressed adults abandon nests, and that’s heartbreaking,” she said. “They tell me that they have never seen so many issues of people crowding around nests, even picking up eggs and chicks — which is illegal since these are federally endangered species, which makes adults abandon the nests and the chicks die.”

Part of the organization’s effort has been to educate beach visitors and keep people aware of the nests, Gundrum said. The birds will often travel up and down the shore, so people should also watch out for the chicks, which feed themselves, and adults roaming.

“When you do see these critters on the beach, whether adults or chicks, we ask you give them space,” Gundrum said. “Walk around them. We highly encourage people to leash their dogs in the spring and summer.”

People can also help by intervening if they see someone disturbing a nest, she said.

If someone on the beach sees another person, child or adult, knowingly or unknowingly disturbing the nests or the chicks, share the knowledge that these birds require as much space as possible, she said.

Plover nests at Western Beach in Scarborough. Ariana van den Akker courtesy photo

“They nest typically right in front of the dunes and that gives them the opportunity to forage in the water’s edge,” Gundrum said. “When they’re foraging, they’re all over the beach. When we know there’s a nest we put up stakes in the ground and connect them with twine to make sure they know this is a restricted area.”

Although there have been some difficulties, Gundrum feels good about the shorebirds’ future in Maine, she said.

“This year has been extra challenging, but I’m optimistic and grateful that we have so many people who are willing to help protect these birds,” Gundrum said.

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