Federal and state officials are investigating two reports of vandalism to piping plover nesting areas in Saco and Old Orchard Beach. This piping plover chick was photographed with a zoom lens, from a distance, on a Scarborough beach in 2019. Tammy Wells Photo

SACO — Two separate incidents of vandalism to piping plover nesting areas in Saco and Old Orchard Beach over the weekend has resulted in the death of one chick and a nest abandonment.

Federal and state investigators are continuing their probe into the incidents involving the dismantling and destruction of piping plover enclosures in Saco at Goosefare Brook and in Old Orchard Beach, said Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spokesman Mark Latti.

The birds are a protected species on both the state and national level.

The Saco incident took place on the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge at Goosefare Brook.

The incidents apparently took place in the middle of the night July 4.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are conducting the investigation.

Latti on Tuesday said in the Saco incident, a nesting enclosure was destroyed and the adults and chicks abandoned their nests. One chick was found dead.

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge wildlife biologist Kate O’Brien said the incidents are serious.

“The chicks hatched on July 1, so they are less than a week old and are quite vulnerable to human disturbance,” she said of the plovers at Goosefare Brook. “The chicks rely on the care of both parents in order to be protected from danger. This plover family has been carefully monitored by Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge with assistance from the City of Saco and local residents.”

Latti said the enclosure at Old Orchard Beach that housed a nesting pairs of adult chicks was vandalized and dismantled.

“The adults temporarily abandoned the nest, but they did come back,” said Latti of the Old Orchard Beach incident, adding it remains to be seen if the three eggs in it will hatch.

He said anyone with any information regarding the vandalism is asked to call Operation Game Thief at 1-800-ALERT-US or 207-624-7076.

Piping plovers, which are classified as an endangered species by the state and a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, lay their eggs on the beach. According to FWS publications, the males make several small, shallow depressions in the sand. The females choose which one to use and usually lay four eggs. The eggs hatch in about 25 days.

Those who “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct,” face federal criminal charges and can be fined up to $25,000 and be sentenced to up to 6 months in prison, upon conviction.

Maine Audubon, which monitors both piping plovers and least terns, reported that in 2019, there were a total of 89 pairs of piping plovers in the state that nested and produced 175 fledged young.

In 2018, there were 68 nesting pairs statewide, which resulted in 128 fledged birds, according to Maine Audubon reports.

Nine years ago, in 2011, there were just 33 nesting pairs statewide. No report on the number of fledglings produced that year was available.

In 1986, there were just 15 breeding pairs, according to Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

The city of Saco is asking people to leave piping plover nests alone.

“By respecting nests and keeping dogs on a leash from April 1st to September 30th at Bayview Beach, Kinney Shores, and Camp Ellis Beach, you help the species of plover continue to recover,” city officials said in a statement. “Our Piping Plover Monitors will continue to observe the birds, watch for disturbances, and report any issues to the Parks and Recreation Department.”

Rachel Carson NWR manager Karl Stromayer said despite understaffing, the agency has made plovers a high priority throughout the pandemic. He praised the efforts of municipalities that monitor piping plover nests in their communities.

In nearby Kennebunk, town officials recently banned dogs from Parsons Beach through July 31, to protect nesting piping plovers.

O’Brien said anyone who witnesses the chasing of plovers by people or pets, or disturbing nesting areas by being inside fencing, ripping fencing down or damaging enclosures is asked  to report it by calling 1-800-452-4664.

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