Federal and state wildlife officials are investigating the destruction of piping plover nesting enclosures on beaches in Saco and Old Orchard Beach that resulted in abandoned nests and the death of a chick.

Piping plover enclosures near Goosefare Brook in Saco and on Old Orchard Beach were dismantled and destroyed in the middle of the night on July 4, according to Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. A nesting pair at the Old Orchard Beach site abandoned the nest, but have since returned.

A chick from the Goosefare Brook site was found dead after the nesting enclosure was destroyed and plovers abandoned that nest. A Maine Audubon sign near the enclosure was vandalized. The Goosefare Brook nesting site is within the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

A piping plover forages on Wells Beach in May. A record number of the endangered shorebirds nested in Maine this year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The incidents are being investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and IFW. The harassment or death of an endangered or threatened species can lead to state and federal charges resulting in fines up to $25,000 and six months in prison.

The incidents happened during the best nesting season for piping plovers in Maine on record, said Maine Audubon’s Laura Minich Zitske, director of the Piping Plover and Least Tern Project. There are around 100 nesting pairs on Maine beaches and chicks are now very active.

“It’s an exciting time because many of our chicks are learning how to fly,” Zitske said.

But with that activity comes the danger that humans and domestic animals will interfere with the birds, either intentionally or by accident. Many local beaches either ban dogs or require them to be leashed to protect plovers during the nesting season. In Saco, dogs must be on a leash from April 1 to Sept. 30 at Bayview Beach, Kinney Shores and Camp Ellis Beach.

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.

The plover nesting season got off to a strong start, which biologists credited in part to several busy beaches being closed for a time because of the coronavirus pandemic and the success plovers had last year on Maine beaches. There have been 168 chicks spotted on the more than two dozen beaches in Maine that are monitored for plovers.

Last year, there were 89 nesting pairs and 175 fledged chicks in Maine, a record for the state.

Piping plovers breed only in three geographical areas in North America: the Atlantic coast, the Northern Great Plains and the Great Lakes. The plover populations were federally listed as threatened and endangered in 1986. The population of plovers on the Atlantic coast has grown in recent years, but is still considered endangered in Maine and threatened nationally.

Jodi MacPhail, a Saco city councilor, has been volunteering as a plover monitor on Saco beaches since April with her husband, Alexander. Plovers nested in two spots on the beach this year – a first for Saco in recent years. There were eight eggs between the two nests, and seven chicks hatched.

MacPhail was shocked to see the nesting area at Goosefare Brook destroyed and an obscenity spray painted on a Maine Audubon sign.

“It devastated me. It made me sick to my stomach,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that somebody could do that, during these times or normal times.”

MacPhail, her husband and other volunteers continue to check on the plovers. They have been able to account for six of the seven chicks. All of the plovers have been spotted in the nesting area that was not vandalized.

Zitske, from Maine Audubon, said it is uncommon for people to intentionally interfere with plover nests on Maine beaches, but it seems to be happening more this year than in recent years. But she said volunteer monitors, beachgoers and landowners are among the biggest advocates for piping plovers and have been quick to offer support this year.

“For every person who does a wrong thing, there are 99 people who are doing the right thing, which is giving them space and watching them from a distance,” she said. “When we walk down the beach, people are generally very supportive of our work and the birds. When one person does something to damage the birds, it takes that away from everyone.”

Anyone with information about the incidents is asked to call Operation Game Thief at 800-ALERT-US or 207-646-7076.

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