A piping plover sprinted out of the grass and froze, its spindly orange legs spread in a challenging stance. The bold behavior was in stark contrast to the appearance of the intrinsically cute bird, with its rounded beak and teacup-sized body. It stared at the wildlife biologist, then lifted its wing at an awkward angle and hobbled away from the nest.
“That’s a broken-wing display,” Laura Zitske of the Maine Audubon said. “It’s trying to lead us away from its nest.”
Zitske quickly counted four speckled eggs nestled in the sand between two patches of grass, then backed away.
The plover dashed back to its nest and resumed its post. It was June 26, and the eggs would be hatching any day. Plover chicks from other broods already were roaming the sand dunes, Zitske said, closely guarded by their parents.
“They’re the sneakiest chicks,” Zitske said, looking for the tiny puffballs as they dashed through the grass.
Listed as an endangered species in Maine and a threatened species on the federal level, piping plovers are nesting and raising their young on sandy beaches from Ogunquit to Georgetown. This year, biologists have counted at least 60 nesting pairs, a 20 percent increase from last year’s 50 pairs and twice as many as were counted just five years ago.
“It’s been a very busy year for plovers,” Zitske, who manages the Maine Audubon Piping Plover and Least Tern Recovery Project, said.
“We’re definitely on an upswing, thanks to a lot of hard work by a lot of different people — and some luck, as well,” Zitske said with a grin. “This is a population size we’d like to see stabilize.”
Maine Audubon has worked for more than 30 years to restore Maine’s piping plover and least tern populations through education, monitoring and by fences and signs to protect nesting areas. The project is funded by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, with additional funding provided by the Phineas W. Sprague Memorial Foundation.
Like the piping plover, the least tern is listed as endangered in Maine. Zitske estimates there are between 200 and 250 nesting pairs of least terns in the state. They nest in the same habitat as the piping plover — sand dunes with thin vegetation.
On June 26, at the quiet south end of Popham Beach, least terns wheeled through the sky, their sharp cries competing with the crashing surf. Now and again a least tern would dive, splash into the water and snatch up tiny silver fish to carry back to its nest in the dunes.
“Terns let you know when they’re not happy,” Zitske said, eying a least tern as it soared overhead. A few second later, it dove at Zitske, pulling up just feet from her head, which was covered in a baseball cap — protection from the inevitable tern poop, she said.
Unperturbed, she carefully continued to pick her way through the sand dunes, trying to get a handle on the number of nesting plovers and terns on Popham Beach.
This year, piping plovers have been found nesting on about 20 Maine beaches, which is the most locations since the Maine Audubon began the project in 1981, Zitske said. Even in 2002, when biologists counted the highest number of nesting pairs yet, at 66, piping plovers were nesting on fewer Maine beaches than they are now.
“We’re busy,” Zitske said. “And complicating it is that sometimes they move between beaches. For example, we had chicks that hatched on Moody Beach in Wells and just decided to go across the town line and are now being tended to by their parents in Ogunquit Beach.”
Many of the beaches piping plovers nest on are open to the public.
Already this year, 25 piping plover chicks have been counted on Old Orchard Beach, one of the busiest public beaches in Maine.
“It’s a pretty special thing to just be on vacation and relaxing in your beach chair and then watching a whole endangered species family walk by and do it’s thing,” she said. “It’s a pretty neat thing. They just really need some space.”
While nesting areas are roped off from the public, piping plovers often are found searching for food outside their nesting areas. Even the chicks emerge to forage.
“We have over 100 chicks on the ground in the state of Maine right now,” Zitske said. “Chicks are flightless, but they are not immobile. They move quite a lot.”
“I think the best thing that people can do for piping plovers is just pay attention,” she continued. “They’re incredibly well camouflaged. They’re not always where you expect them.”
Beachgoers, however unintentionally, can divide a plover family, which makes chicks more vulnerable to predators, such as gulls and crows, Zitske said. But for the most part, people and plovers can coexist on Maine’s sandy beaches peacefully.
“One of the best things about this project is when you see people who have ownership over the beach and the birds,” Zitske said. “It’s really neat to see people from different communities show such dedication to keeping their beaches healthy and keeping the birds on there.”
Walking along the edge of a roped-off nesting area, Zitske spotted a plover chick as it sped out of the grass and froze. Covered in fluffy tan feathers, the tiny bird was nearly impossible to distinguish from the sand beneath it.
“Their main defense is camouflage,” Zitske said.
As Zitske watched the plover chick, its two parents rushed out of the dunes to lure the biologist away.
“That’s good. They’re doing what they’re supposed to,” Zitske said, following the adult plovers away from their chick. “Sometimes I like to let them think they’ve tricked me.”
To learn more about the Maine Audubon Piping Plover and Least Tern Recovery Project, visit maineaudubon.org.