AUGUSTA — As Maine’s beach season hits high gear, beachgoers are reminded to care for rare piping plovers.
The small shorebirds are listed as an endangered species in Maine and are on the federal list of threatened species. They breed in Maine during spring and summer to lay eggs, hatch chicks and raise their young on Maine’s sandy beaches.
But piping plovers also are extremely vulnerable to the conditions around them.
“Overall, it’s pretty amazing that some of Maine’s busiest beaches are home to an endangered species,” said Laura Minich Zitske, who runs the plover recovery program for Maine Audubon. “It makes for an incredible opportunity for people to see and appreciate rare wildlife. There is lots of room for everyone on our beaches, we just ask for people to share the beach and be aware of the plovers.”
There have been two documented cases of piping plover chicks killed in Maine this season, though the overall prognosis for the species this summer appears good. There currently are 33 nesting pairs of plovers in the state — up from 30 in 2010 — with 26 chicks, 47 fledglings (juvenile birds ready to fly) and two other nests still with eggs to hatch.
It’s shaping up to be a productive season in Maine for plovers, but the most dangerous time of the year for the birds is upon us. Adults, chicks and fledglings remain vulnerable to predators and disturbance.
Last Thursday, Audubon biologists discovered 37 adult and young plovers on Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunk.
“We have never seen so many plovers in one place at the same time in all the years we’ve been working on the project,” said Maine Audubon’s Director of Conservation Sally Stockwell in a press release.
“We think it’s because most birds nested successfully the first time this year — that is, their nests were not washed out by high tides — and so have ‘finished early’ and are already starting to change into fall plumage and fatten up for their long flight south for the winter.”
It is extremely important, to remember that piping plovers need our protection, she added.
Foot traffic on beaches can separate young from parents, and chicks may be stepped on unknowingly. People may see chicks on the ground trying to blend in with the sand and pick them up, thinking they are injured, in the wrong place or dead. Chicks appearing frozen on the ground should be left alone. If you hear an adult vocalizing or see it pretending to be injured with a “broken-wing display” — which they use to distract would-be predators from their chicks — back away and let the adults tend to their chicks.
Pets also can be lethal to plovers, particularly dogs and cats, which can kill chicks. Pets should be leashed or kept inside where plovers are nesting.
“Most of the beaches here in Maine have a high volume of tourists,” said Judy Camuso, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “We try to balance the needs of the plovers and of people. We’ve been very successful at producing young piping plovers here in Maine, and as long as people do their part and we do our part, we’re going to continue to have a successful piping plover program for many years to come – and for the enjoyment of future generations.”