Piping Plovers Find a Toehold on Maine Beaches

By Cat Lazaroff

WELLS BEACH, Maine, July 26, 2005 (ENS) - Every year, from early April until the end of August, Paula Mamone patrols the beaches near her home in Wells looking for the well-hidden nests of piping plovers. These tiny, sand-colored birds have found a foothold on Wells Beach and nearby Ogunquit Beach, and Mamone coordinates a small army of volunteers working with Maine Audubon to make sure that the endangered shorebirds will thrive.

"I became so interested in the program after Jody Jones of Maine Audubon found a nest on my beach," Mamone says.

Mamone was not thrilled at first at the prospect of having access to her own stretch of sand curbed in any way. But once she saw the trim birds with their puffball chicks, she fell in love. "I'm just crazy about these birds. And it seems like every year, they come back to visit me."


Piping plover in its favorite beach habitat. The bird's name comes from its call notes, bell-like whistles which are often heard before the birds are seen. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The piping plover nests on beaches along the northeast Atlantic coast, river and lake shorelines in the Great Plains, and along the shores of the Great Lakes. Despite this broad range, the tiny birds have struggled to survive in the beachfront habitat they share with water-loving humans.

Coastal development has destroyed enormous swaths of plover habitat over the past half-century. Where beaches still exist, plover nests are often accidentally destroyed by human visitors or their pets, or abandoned by frequently harassed plover parents.

With the help of volunteers like Mamone, however, plovers are starting to make a comeback. The piping plover was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1986, and recovery plans are now in place for all three breeding populations. These plans include monitoring and protecting the birds' nesting grounds - and that's where Mamone comes in.

Dozens of volunteers recruited and overseen by Mamone walk the beaches looking for plover nests each spring and summer. When they find a nest, they call Jody Jones, Maine Audubon's piping plover project coordinator. Jones then dispatches both of her seasonal biologists to encircle the nest in a ring of wire-mesh fencing and a net roof. The fencing, called an exclosure, has mesh large enough to easily allow the plovers to come and go, but too small for most predators to enter.

The biologists also stake off areas and place signs alerting beachgoers that a plover nest is nearby, and warning that the birds and their nests are protected by law. Humans and their pets are urged to stay well away from the nests, and beach cleaners detour around the fencing. These measures have been proven to dramatically increase the likelihood that the plovers will successfully rear at least some of the four chicks the average nest will produce.


A biologist establishes an exclosure fence to protect piping plovers on a Maine beach. (Photo courtesy Maine Audubon)
In 1981, when Maine Audubon began its piping plover monitoring and protection program, only 10 pairs of plovers were nesting in Maine, where they produced just nine chicks. In 2001, a record 109 piping plover chicks fledged.

These numbers reflect the growth of the Atlantic coastal population as a whole - in 1986, just 790 breeding pairs were counted along the coast from South Carolina to Newfoundland, Canada; in 2002, that number had grown to 1,690.

The Maine Audubon model has led the way for other plover protection programs as well. In Michigan, for example, volunteers spent more than 3,000 hours during the 2004 nesting season patrolling shorelines in state parks and educating visitors about the need to protect the endangered plovers. The Great Lakes population now averages around 50 pairs, up from a low point of just 12 nests. In the northern Great Plains region around 1,290 pairs of plovers nest each year.

Of course, the piping plover still faces a number of obstacles on the road to full recovery. In May 2005, a strong nor'easter blew waves across Wells Beach and wiped out all six of the beach's nests - a total of 24 unhatched eggs - in a single day. The beleaguered birds dug in and built new nests, but the late start meant they had to share the sands with warm weather beachgoers.

"It was awful," Mamone said, to lose so many nests so early in the season. "Once tourist season sets in, it's so much harder for the birds to raise those chicks."

It's hard enough for the plovers to weather such natural disasters without also facing continuing danger from humans. On nearby Ogunquit Beach, the plovers met a different kind of disaster this year - Fourth of July revelers. Although the Ogunquit town council rejected a request to hold a large fireworks display on the beach that night, a few people still decided to celebrate the holiday by illegally camping on the beach and setting off their own fireworks. The next morning, a recently hatched plover chick had vanished.


Piping plover chicks are miniature balls of fluff that cannot fly for 25 days after they are hatched. (Photo by Richard Kuzminski courtesy USFWS)
State wildlife officials had been working with officials from the town of Ogunquit for six months to find a way for the fireworks display to be held without endangering the birds. However, the group seeking a display had never submitted a permit application spelling out how they would meet the requirements that they protect the birds during the Fourth of July celebrations.

"Piping plovers and beachgoers have coexisted in Maine for years," wrote Jones following the Fourth of July. Maine Audubon is working with interested parties to "find a solution that allows piping plover protection and a July 4 firework celebration in 2006, if the town wants one."

Despite their ongoing problems, there is no doubt that piping plovers are better off now than when they were first listed under the Endangered Species Act. Without the legal protections provided by the law, successful protection programs like the one spearheaded by Maine Audubon would never have gotten off the ground. Endangered Species Act listing has raised the profile of these beautiful shorebirds, leading people who had never before noticed their avian neighbors to take an active role in their protection.

"Once they're educated, the homeowners along these beaches see the plover and fall in love with it," said Mamone. "They're so excited when they find a nest on their beach, they can't wait to call me!"

{Former Environment News Service Washington Bureau Chief and bird lover Cat Lazaroff now serves as policy press secretary for Earthjustice.}