A piping plover chick finds a cosy spot underneath mom on a Saco beach. Fewer birds fledged this year in Kennebunk, Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Pine Point in Scarborough, according to Maine Audubon. Courtesy Photo/Jim Swain

 

Piping plover chicks — those fuzzy, little, wicked cute birds born on the sand and protected by Maine’s designation as an endangered species and the U.S. government as a threatened species — have been doing well lately, with exceptions in some locations, according to Maine Audubon.

Piping plovers have had a record-breaking year in 2021, with 125 pairs producing 213 fledged chicks, up from 98 pairs producing 199 chicks in 2020.

But the news is not all good, especially in parts of York County.

Old Orchard Beach and Saco beaches were not part of the record-breaking success, said Maine Audubon spokeswoman Melissa Kim. Statistically, “less than one chick per pair of plovers survived to be able to fly on its own,” she said.

At Parsons Beach in Kennebunk, two pairs of piping plovers made the beach their home this year, but their stay was not a success  when it came to producing young.  One pair laid eggs that hatched, but none of the chicks survived to fledge, said Maine Audubon Coastal Bird Program Director Laura Minich Zitske. In 2020, the first-time piping plovers had been on Parsons Beach since 2017 according to Kennebunk Town Manager Mike Pardue, one pair hatched four eggs, with three birds fledged.

A trio of piping plover chicks nestle in the seaweed on a Saco beach. Courtesy Photo/Jim Swain

At Ferry Beach in Saco, through Old Orchard Beach and up to Pine Point in Scarborough, plovers did not do well. Taking those beaches together, this year the average productivity was .786 chicks fledged per pair. By contrast, beaches in Phippsburg and Georgetown were much more successful, the 29 pairs on beaches there fledged 67 chicks, according to Maine Audubon’s 2021 report.

The reasons for fewer piping plovers in Kennebunk, Saco and Old Orchard Beach are varied, said Zitske.

“Whenever dealing with a wild animal, there are always a lot of different things at play. It is hard to pin it down to one thing,” said Zitske. “It is important to note Old Orchard Beach is a really busy tourist beach, but we’ve had some great years with success. And Ogunquit can have wall to wall people, and they’ve had some really successful years. Some of it we just don’t know.”

Some factors about the lack of success are known, Zitske said. In Old Orchard Beach, she said, crows, which will take a small chick, were a substantial problem this year.

“A volunteer saw the whole thing,” she said. “And at the site where the birds hatch, there was not a lot of natural vegetation, so the chick had nowhere to hide. People want flat sand and no vegetation, but that is bad for the beach and for the wildlife.”

Another issue is that people at some locations have removed fencing that is used to give the birds space, again leaving them without enough safe spaces to hide.

A third problem can be off-leash dogs. “An adult (plover) was killed by a dog in Wells this year,” Zitske said. “People think their dog would never chase those birds, but most of our dog breeds are bird dogs.”

Zitske noted some communities allow dogs to be off-leash on the beach at certain times of day, and that some begin enforcing dog leash requirements around Memorial Day or later — although the adult plovers can arrive in March and begin nesting around mid-April.

A piping plover appears to impart some motherly advice to a chick on a Saco beach. Courtesy Photo/Jim Swain

Many beaches that attract piping plovers are patrolled by volunteer beach monitors, who try to make sure people and animals do not disturb nesting areas, plovers, or the chicks.

In Saco, dogs must be leashed on the beach from April 1 to Sept. 30.

Volunteer monitor Jim Swain who is in his fourth year patrolling Ferry Bach and Kinney Shores, has had some experience with dog owners — in one case this year a man came on one of the beaches with two unleashed dogs.

“They immediately went for the mother and babies,” said Swain. “I was able to get between the dogs and plovers and spoke to the dog and the owner.” He said the dog owner was not happy, and voiced his displeasure, but complied with the leash requirement.

Swain recalled the wanton destruction of a nest with eggs a year ago and noted there was no repeat of that behavior in 2021 — but eggs were lost this season when sea storms swept two nests away.

According to Maine Audubon, on the night of July 4, or during the early hours of July 5 in 2020, the Goosefare Brook area of Saco was vandalized. Fencing was torn down, evidence of fireworks was present, graffiti was left, and human tracks were seen throughout the nesting area. The adult plovers abandoned the area, resulting in the loss of three chicks.

Saco Councilor Jodi MacPhail, who, along with her husband Alex, is a beach monitor, said in her experience people were good about staying away from the birds this year and as a councilor, she said she received no complaints this season.

Maine’s plovers are critical to the overall success of the species, according to Maine Audubon. There are about 2,000 pairs along the Atlantic coast, from the Carolinas to Canada. Zitske said piping plovers that breed in the New England states, particularly in Maine and Massachusetts, are seeing better success rates than in other areas.

Swain, who often photographs piping plovers, said he enjoys being a volunteer monitor.

“I find it very rewarding as people do stop me and ask about the plovers and babies, and thank me for what I do,” he said. “It was sad not to see as many babies as in previous years.”

Comments are not available on this story.