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Renewed Interest in Federally Protected Piping Plovers Following Dog Attack
07/18/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight
Plover Nest

Earlier this week on a Scarborough beach, a piping plover chick was killed by a dog. It's a serious incident because piping plovers are federally threatened and endangered in Maine.

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 Duration:
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Plover Warning Signs on Hills BeachFive days a week, Maine Audubon piping plover biologist Traczie Bellinger heads to Maine beaches to do "chick checks." On this day, she drives in a blue pick up truck along with intern Katie Burns to check in on a piping plover family at Hills Beach in Biddeford. But Bellinger is a little worried.

"Something happened and probably something stressed out one of the parents," Bellinger said. "And one of the parents has actually abandoned the chicks. So, it's been a single parent so it's been a little struggle for them, but they're really coming through and I really hope that they're still here today."

As Bellinger parks the truck, she explains that Hills Beach has already lost one piping plover nest this season, the parents abandoned it the day before eggs were due to hatch, likely because they felt threatened. The birds have a white belly, sandy brownish-gray back, and orange beak and legs, they're small, about the size of your hand said Bellinger, but they are not at all meek.

"They're super tough, like surprisingly so," she said. "They're small and compact. We've seen them chase off gulls and other predators, and they'll do almost anything to protect their nests and their chicks."

Toughness is what makes these birds stand out said Bellinger, and it's a trait they need. They were federally listed for protection just over 25 years ago, and listed as endangered in Maine a decade later. Despite these protections there are just 47 nesting pairs in the state. Their numbers have shrunk along with their habitat. Piping plovers like ocean beaches, but so do humans, and seacoast development has taken its toll. Bellinger and Burns head to the beach to see if the remaining two chicks at Hills Beach are still there.

"Let's head on out there," said Bellinger.

Hills Beach is classic habitat for piping plovers. Bellinger said most people think the birds nest in sand dunes, but they actually nest in more open areas of the beach so they can see looming predators. Katie Burns walks to the area where the chicks were born, now cordoned off with stakes, twine, and signs.

"They nest right in the sand, they make little scrapes," said Burns. "It really just looks like a little footprint. They just wiggle their butts, and that's how they make their nests, and the only way you can tell it's a nest is there's four little eggs in it."

Though the pairs typically lay four eggs, not all of them will survive. Curious humans can scare adult plovers away from their nests, and animal predators are a constant threat. Bellinger said the incident earlier this week when a dog killed a chick was particularly wrenching because the chick had nearly reached adulthood.

"We don't know how often this actually happens and we just don't find out about it, but it's pretty bad," Bellinger said. "And losing an adult is much more devastating than losing an egg or a chick."

But there is hope on this beach. The tide is out, revealing dark rocks and bright white shells. But if you look closely, some of those white spots that look like shells begin to move.

"Oh! There they are," Bellinger said.

One adult and two chicks scuttle along the beach, their skinny legs create an orange blur. One of the chicks stretches its wings, a sign that it's about ready to practice flying. Then the adult starts peeping, a sign that we're too close and need to back away.

Though piping plovers need their space, Bellinger said one of her favorite things about the birds is how accessible they are.

"What I really like about piping plovers is that they're in everyone's back yard," she said. "And when people think of endangered animals they think of elephants or animals in South America or Africa and Asia."

But here, Bellinger said, you can set up your beach chair, and catch a glimpse of an endangered species. She said piping plovers have a long way to go, but their numbers are slowly getting better. Bellinger said she has hope for the species as a whole, as for these chicks on the cusp of adulthood.

Photos by Patty Wight.

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