Volunteers needed to monitor Scarborough's plovers

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SCARBOROUGH — The piping plovers are back, and the town of Scarborough is looking for volunteers to keep an eye on them.

Some volunteers have already started their duties, but the city needs more beach monitors by May 15 at Pine Point Beach, Higgins Beach, Ferry Beach, and Western Beach. 

Kerry Strout Grantham, Scarborough’s sustainability coordinator, said piping plovers are federally threatened and an endangered species in Maine. In addition, a Scarborough town ordinance enacted in 2001 and last amended in 2014 protects the birds. The ordinance includes strict restrictions on where dogs can go and when owners must keep them on leash during nesting season.

The town revised its animal control ordinance after an off-leash dog killed a plover in summer 2013, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to serve the town with a $12,000 fine.  The town then reached an agreement with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the birds.

The town also partners with Maine Audubon, which works in conjunction with state and federal agencies. 

According to Grantham, plovers can be found from Kittery to Georgetown and farther up the coast in Canada. 

“Plovers nest in front of sand dunes on the upper beach and are vulnerable to natural predators, roaming pets, storms and human disturbance,” said Grantham. “In an effort to protect nesting plovers, Maine Audubon encourages beach-goers to stay away from roped off plover areas and to watch where you are walking on the beach to avoid stepping on nests.”

Sections of Scarborough beaches are already closed to dogs and are roped off. Some nest enclosures have been set up to protect the nests from predators. 

Laura Zitske, a wildlife ecologist at Maine Audubon, said the wildlife nonprofit monitors the beaches from Ogunquit Beach to Reid State Park in Georgetown.

Zitske said May is peak egg-laying season and chicks start to hatch about 28 days after the last egg has been laid. She estimated eggs may start hatching around May 20.

Zitske said the birds mature rapidly; in just 25 days they grow from the size of a cotton ball to the size of a robin.

“We aim for 1.5 chicks fledged per (mating) pair,” Zitske said. 

According to Maine Audubon, “Historically, Maine has had more than 30 miles of suitable nesting beaches that may have supported more than 200 pairs of piping plovers and 1,200 pairs of least terns. Today, because of the construction of seawalls, jetties, piers, homes, parking lots and other structures, the available shoreline habitat for these two species has been reduced by more than 75 percent.”

Maine Audubon will conduct a census in June. Last year 66 mating pairs were found on Southern Maine beaches, and produced 101 fledglings. On Scarborough beaches, nine mating pairs with 10 fledglings were located. Higgins Beach produced the highest number of fledglings in Scarborough with seven chicks hatched by two adult pairs. 

Zitske said the Audubon is not sure where the plovers migrated from, but a few banded mating pairs have arrived from the Bahamas and South Carolina for the last several years. The banded plovers have been singled out for specific projects, none of which are in Maine.  Zitske said Maine Audubon doesn’t band the birds because of potential leg injuries that can lead to early mortality.

Beach monitors typically record plover activity and educate beach-goers to keep the plovers save. To volunteer, visit http://www.scarboroughmaine.org/departments/sustainability/piping-plovers or call Grantham at 730-4049.

Under the local animal control ordinance, dogs are not allowed on Western Beach, or in restricted areas on Higgins Beach from Champion Street to the Spurwink River. Dogs must be leashed in certain restricted areas of Ferry and Pine Point beaches.

Also, from May 15 to the day after Labor Day, no dogs are allowed between 9 a.m and 5 p.m on any Scarborough beach. From 5 p.m. to dusk, dogs must be leashed but between dawn and 9 a.m. dogs can be off leash, except in restricted areas.  

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

A piping plover on Higgins Beach in Scarborough on Tuesday.

Kerry Strout Grantham, Scarborough’s sustainability coordinator, said piping plovers are federally threatened and a Maine endangered species. Grantham watches a piping plover at Higgins Beach on Tuesday. In the background is Todd Souza, community services director for Scarborough.