Piping Plovers: Record-breaking numbers don’t tell the whole story

One possible headline for a story about the 2021 Piping Plover season could be “Endangered Birds Break Records on Maine Beaches in 2021.” That wouldn’t be wrong, and yes, there would be much to celebrate. More Piping Plover pairs than ever before fledged chicks. In 2020, 98 plover pairs fledged 199 chicks. This year, 125 plover pairs fledged 213 chicks! 

But that headline might lead people to think that success is a given, and that Piping Plovers are on a steady rise. According to Maine Audubon Coastal Bird Program Director Laura Minich Zitske, that’s why records and numbers can be misleading. “The good news is that 125 Piping Plover pairs in Maine raising over 200 chicks to the point where they can fly is a tremendous feat,” she says. “But 125 pairs is still not a lot for the entire state of Maine.”

And Maine’s plovers are critical to the overall success of the species. There are approximately 2,000 pairs along the Atlantic coast, from the Carolinas to Canada. Plovers nesting in the Canadian and the mid-Atlantic part of the range are having low productivity and declining. Plovers that breed in the New England states are seeing better success rates, so the whole population depends on these little six-inch-high shorebirds to produce lots of chicks in Maine. With intense and unpredictable hurricanes in wintering areas like the southern U.S., Bahamas, and Caribbean, it may be more essential than ever that our beaches fledge enough young.  

And while they did produce this summer, some beaches were extremely productive (plovers at Popham Beach State Park and Seawall Beach fledged at least 55 chicks alone!) while other sites had complete or near-complete failures.

It is easy for beaches with few pairs to have extreme success/failure rates—another factor that can result in misleading statistics. At Parsons Beach in Kennebunk, there were only two pairs this summer, only one pair laid eggs that hatched, and none of the chicks made it. So Parsons Beach birds had a productivity rate of zero. Half Mile, at Reid State Park in Georgetown, however, also had two pairs. Both pairs hatched and fledged all chicks, four chicks per pair, so their productivity rate was a whopping 4 chicks per pair. 

Grouping beaches together into regions, trends do emerge. At the Saco Bay beaches (Ferry Beach in Saco, through the beaches in Old Orchard, up to Pine Point in Scarborough), plovers did not do well. Looking at those beaches all together, this year the average productivity was a grim .786 chicks fledged per pair. Our “northern” beaches, in Phippsburg and Georgetown, on the other hand, were exceptionally successful this year. The 29 pairs on these beaches fledged 67 chicks to flying, for an incredible 2.31 chicks fledged per pair. 

What’s behind these trends? It is tempting to think that the northern beaches will always do better because the state parks (like Reid and Popham) are protected, and Seawall Beach is a (literal) hike in, so has little human disturbance.  And you’d think that crowds at places like Old Orchard Beach are bad for plovers. But it’s not always the case, so conclusions are hard to draw. Some years, protected park beaches fail (for instance, in 2017 Popham Beach State Park had six pairs but no chicks fledged), and some years, busy beaches like Old Orchard are very successful; in 2015, OOB had 9 pairs and fledged 17 chicks!

As Zitske always likes to remind people, healthy plovers also mean healthy beaches. She says, “When we protect the piping plover, it’s not just the plovers we protect. Protecting a federally threatened species such as piping plovers means not only protecting the birds themselves, but also safeguarding the habitat they need. Healthy beaches for plovers, in turn, benefit a suite of other species, including human visitors.”

So what do the numbers really tell us? Every beach is important to help with plover recovery and support a healthy population. Every beach has good and bad years depending on weather, predators, and human disturbance. And every beach needs our help to make sure that the birds have the space they need to do their thing.