Piping Plovers: Endangered, Small, and Tough.

This Piping Plover Chick is struggling with a crane fly. The crane fly got away but this shows just how small and vulnerable the young are in this species. Photo: Chuck Holmer
This Piping Plover Chick is struggling with a crane fly. The crane fly got away but this shows just how small and vulnerable the young are in this species. Photo: Chuck Homler

By: Katie Burns, Piping Plover project intern

Due to their endangered status and small stature, Piping Plovers are often given a bad rap by the general public. For years, they have been deemed “wimpy” or “pathetic,” but this is simply not the case. It’s time to set the record straight: Piping Plovers are tough cookies.

Though this hardy little bird makes its habitat in one of the harshest and most exposed environments, it is perfectly adapted to do so. Nesting on the edge of dunes, the sea provides them with plenty of food, and the sand offers many places for them to nest. Their coloration allows them to blend in with the sand, seaweed and rocks, making them very hard to spot and providing them with protection from predators who may seek them out. Plovers also lay eggs that are well-camouflaged, as they blend in with the rocks and sand. Though they are constantly at the mercy of the elements and the rising tides, the birds are resilient and will stick with their nests to ensure the safety of their eggs. In general, they had a pretty good thing going on until humans began flooding the beaches! Trash cans and other human food sources have attracted “smart predators,” such as foxes, raccoons, and crows, which are adept at detecting nests to feed on the eggs. Humans have also introduced domesticated animals, such as dogs and cats, which also prey on the birds. But “smart predators” aren’t the only threat – urban development, off-road vehicles and fireworks have contributed to a very difficult environment for these shorebirds survival.

True to the resolute nature of their species, the Piping Plovers that nest along the coast of Maine have remained tolerant in the face of adversity. Our team monitors nests from Ogunquit to Reid State Park and has witnessed the trials and triumphs of the species. After a rough start to the season, what with the stormy spring weather and astronomical high tides, the birds have re-nested and many now have tiny chicks. They continue to defend their offspring with an intimidating ferocity and selflessness, often putting themselves in danger to protect their brood. The other day, a particularly brave plover at Pine Point came within inches of a biologist as she tried to get a good look at his nest. The bird stood his ground, piping heartily and fluffing himself up, before chasing the well-meaning biologist away.

Currently there are about 43 pairs of Piping Plovers in the state of Maine. Our team, working with the Maine Audubon Piping Plover and Least Tern Recovery Project, monitors 34 of these pairs. We are out on the beaches almost every day checking on nests, counting chicks, setting up stake-and-twine barriers, and educating the public about what they can do to help the species. This year, our busiest beaches have been Popham and Goose Rocks, which are each home to about 6-7 pairs. As of June 10th, all the eggs at Goose Rocks had hatched, and there are presently 17 little chicks running around out on the sand. We hope a majority of chicks that hatch this season will survive the summer, though it requires cooperation and support of Maine’s beach goers. The best thing that people can do while on the beach is to give these birds their space. Keeping dogs leashed and respecting posted nest sites will help to keep the birds safe and healthy.

The plover’s robust nature has allowed them to prevail against all odds over the years. However, they can’t do it all on their own. We were the ones who changed the game, and now these tough little birds need us to help level the playing field.