It was a banner year for piping plovers in Maine.

A record number of the endangered shorebirds nested on beaches from Ogunquit to Georgetown and produced a record number of fledglings, according to Maine Audubon. Maine beaches hosted 68 nesting pairs that fledged 128 birds, continuing a decade of steady growth in their population.

“That’s the most we’ve had in Maine since we began monitoring in 1981,” said Laura Minich Zitske, who leads the Maine Coastal Birds project for Maine Audubon.

After winter and spring storms left beaches in southern Maine in rough shape, there was some concern about how it would impact the tiny beachcombers that arrive in Maine in late April to early May to nest in the sand near dunes.

“We lost a lot of prime nesting habitat. Beaches like Ogunquit did look pretty rough at points, but thankfully the birds were adaptable and able to find spots to raise their young,” Zitske said.

Ogunquit Beach ended up seeing the most fledglings, with 24 produced by 11 nesting pairs. There were 15 fledglings each at Wells Beach and at Scarborough‘s Western Beach.

Zitske said the success of the plovers this year is due in large part to partnerships between Maine Audubon, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the landowners, volunteers and municipalities that create safe nesting conditions and educate the public about the endangered birds.

In 2005, just 27 chicks fledged on Maine beaches after nests and birds were wiped out by a combination of stormy weather and increased predation. While the numbers fluctuate year to year, the trend in Maine has shown consistent growth since then. Last year, 64 nesting piping plovers yielded 101 chicks.

The 100-plus fledglings – the stage at which chicks can evade predators or other dangers on their own – means Maine is still meeting its conservation targets for gradually restoring a diminutive species of shorebird that nests on Maine’s relatively few sandy beaches at the height of the summer tourism season.

Roughly 2,000 piping plover pairs nest on beaches from North Carolina to Newfoundland. The tiny birds can be spotted skittering at the ocean’s edge or on mudflats searching for worms, bugs and other invertebrates. When they aren’t foraging, plovers can be found nesting in the transition area between dunes and the sandy beach. Plover chicks are so small they are often described as cotton balls walking on toothpick legs.

Maine Audubon works closely with the state wildlife department and towns from Ogunquit to Georgetown to monitor the beaches for breeding pairs beginning in the spring and then advising the public about the birds’ presence. Nests with eggs are often protected by mesh fencing that allows the birds to skitter in and out of the area while keeping out predators. Volunteers and some paid beach monitors advise beachgoers and dog owners on how to avoid disturbing the sensitive birds.

In Ogunquit, town officials this year worked with Maine Audubon and state and federal wildlife officials to improve practices in everything from the type of fencing used around nesting areas to how the town maintains beaches and dunes, said Town Manager Patricia Finnigan. Spotters make sure the heavy equipment used to clean the beaches doesn’t encroach on the birds’ territory or hurt the birds when they leave their nests.

Piping Plover chicks at Popham Beach.

“The employees take pride in doing what we can to protect the dune and beach area so it’s a healthy habitat for piping plovers,” Finnigan said.

Zitske said education efforts have helped make beachgoers aware of the importance of giving piping plovers plenty of space, but there are still times when people interfere with the birds. In June, two 4-day-old plover chicks were temporarily removed from Old Orchard Beach during an incident that Zitske says should serve as a reminder to never pick up piping plovers.

Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough and her husband, Derek, were in Old Orchard Beach to pick up their daughter from work on June 10 when a family of tourists spotted the state Legislature plates on her car and approached looking for help. The family was carrying two tiny birds they had taken away from children who were passing them around, Volk said.

“They were loud little buggers. They were hopping up and down and peeping like crazy,” she said.

Volk said her husband thought the chicks might be baby seagulls and had the family place them in a basket he had in the car, but she suspected they were plovers because they were so small and had been found on the beach. Knowing piping plovers are endangered, Volk said she immediately called police for help. Two Old Orchard Beach officers showed up minutes later.

The officers began trying to track down the appropriate experts to take the chicks and brought the birds back to the police station for a short time. Zitske said the officers had recently been trained on how to deal with piping plovers and knew to contact game wardens and a wildlife biologist. She ended up rushing to Old Orchard and brought the piping plover chicks back to the beach.

Old Orchard Beach summer officer Liam Mellaly holds two piping plover chicks that were rescued from children who were playing with them on the beach. Laura Minich Zitske, leader of the Maine Coastal Birds project for Maine Audubon, said they had to guess which brood the chicks were from, and guessed correctly.

“We had to guess which brood they came from,” she said.

Zitske guessed correctly and the chicks rejoined the parents and two other chicks. All four chicks fledged from the nest, she said.

“It’s a really wonderful thing we can watch an endangered species while we’re on the beach, but it’s important to watch from a distance and not to approach them,” she said.

Volk was relieved to hear that the chicks were reunited with their family because they were “so tiny and vulnerable.”

“It’s kind of scary to think they nest right there on busy beaches and follow the tide down to the water,” she said. “To make it through all the people and chaos is kind of amazing.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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