From left, Erin Campbell, Clark Begley, Hal Muller, Christie Hull and Arleen O’Donnell look for piping plovers on Ogunquit Beach on Thursday. Muller and O’Donnell are part of a team of volunteer plover monitors, and Campbell, Begley and Hull are all part of the Maine Audubon Coastal Birds Crew. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Laura Minich Zitske was overwhelmed when she first walked along the Maine beaches that had been pummeled by winter storms to assess them before the annual return of the piping plovers.

She found it hard to imagine how the small, endangered birds would find places to nest, above the waterline, on beaches that had lost large amounts of sand. But she also saw how some washed-out dunes had actually created areas that looked ideal for nesting plovers.

“Many of our beaches in southern Maine and beyond were hit very hard. It was concerning to me to see how much sand was lost,” said Zitske, director of Maine Audubon’s Piping Plover and Least Tern Project, which works to protect and conserve the rare shorebirds. “When people talk about how our beaches are changing and how that might influence plovers, I say the plovers can be pretty resilient as long as they have that balance between sand and grass,” she said.

A piping plover chick on Ogunquit Beach on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Now that it’s prime plover season, it appears that the pairs nesting on around 30 beaches from Ogunquit to Reid State Park are faring well and adapting to the changes. For the first time ever, they have been found near Timber Point in Biddeford. They’ve also returned to two of the Casco Bay islands for the second consecutive year.

There are now 75 active nests and at least 149 chicks – and it’s likely there could be even more over the next few weeks, Zitske said. The real measure of success will come when the chicks reach the fledgling stage where they can fly.

On some beaches, including Old Orchard Beach, local officials say it appears there is less nesting activity in typical areas. Instead, the birds are finding new spots that have the right mix of open sand and grass for shade and cover from predators.


Erin Campbell, a coastal bird biologist from Maine Audubon Coastal Birds Crew, points out plover tracks in the sand on Ogunquit Beach on Thursday. One volunteer monitor checks on the plovers every day and reports back to the Audubon team. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Suzanne Craig, who coordinates about 60 volunteer plover monitors on beaches in Ogunquit and Wells, said this year has been a bit different. Some birds were right on track – the first eggs were spotted around April 20 – but other pairs are just starting to nest now.

Along Ogunquit Beach, there are areas where it looks like an excavator took out half the dune, Craig said. Some plovers are now nesting in the little caves along the base of the dunes that were carved out by waves, she said.

“You worry if the dune collapses, what’s going to happen to the nest,” she said.

However, Craig said it’s been exciting to see least terns, another small bird, nesting for the first time in decades on the beach near the jetty in Wells, where a large area was washed out over the winter.


Last year, 157 plovers nested on Maine beaches – a 12% increase from 2022. It was the sixth consecutive year with a record high number of breeding pairs. However, only 201 chicks survived until fledge age, the lowest productivity since 2007, according to Maine Audubon.


Despite the low productivity, there were successes: Wells had a record high 16 pairs that fledged 29 chicks and Ogunquit hosted 16 nesting pairs with 24 fledged chicks. And for the first time since monitoring began more than 40 years ago, piping plovers nested on Long Island and Chebeague Island.

A piping plover sits near its nest behind the roped off area on Ogunquit Beach. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

While Maine has seen the number of piping plovers rise in recent years, areas outside of New England haven’t seen the same success, Zitske said.

On average, roughly 2,000 pairs nest on beaches from North Carolina to Newfoundland each year. They are listed as endangered in Maine and are considered threatened along the Atlantic coast.

The tiny birds can be spotted skittering at the ocean’s edge or on mudflats, searching for worms, bugs and other invertebrates. When they aren’t foraging, plovers can be found nesting in the transition area between dunes and sandy beach.

Plover chicks are so small, they are often described as cotton balls on toothpick legs. Within hours of hatching, they’re moving all over the beach.

“They’re highly mobile and really vulnerable,” Zitske said. “It’s important to give them lots of space so we can continue to enjoy them.”


A roped-off area to protect piping plover nests in front of the sand dunes on Ogunquit’s beach. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


The piping plovers had to deal with a lot of changes on the beach from the winter storms, but the biggest threat isn’t necessarily the loss of sand.

Plovers are under constant threat of predation, both by wild animals, including foxes and skunks, and domestic animals that may go after the birds. Last year, people monitoring nesting sites found evidence that eggs and chicks were lost to foxes, dogs, skunks, a crow and a chipmunk. Others were lost during especially high tides.

Clark Begley, left, and Christie Hull look for piping plovers on Ogunquit Beach. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Human interaction is also a threat. When chicks went missing last year on Laundholm Beach in Wells, human tracks were recorded inside of a closed area, photographers were seen disturbing broods, people dragged logs across the beach to build a structure and a drone was witnessed flushing birds on the beach, according to Maine Audubon’s annual Coastal Bird report.

Craig said volunteer monitors check on the plovers every day, but they also spend a lot of time talking to beachgoers about the birds and how to share the beach. Sometimes that means asking people to move their dogs away from nests or asking them to make sure to fill in holes at the end of the day so chicks don’t get trapped.

“If people know they can do something small and make a huge difference, it usually makes them feel pretty good,” she said.

A piping plover on Ogunquit Beach on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Zitske says much of the success of the piping plovers in Maine comes the collaboration between Maine Audubon, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, landowners, volunteers and municipalities to create safe nesting conditions and educate the public.

“There’s always luck involved, but I think Mainers should feel good about our ability to share the beach with plovers and help them succeed,” she said.

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