August 1, 2008
PLIGHT OF THE PLOVER ; State Says Shorebird Needs Further Protection
OLD ORCHARD BEACH - State wildlife officials are looking to step up efforts to protect the threatened piping plover by expanding "essential habitat" zones for the shorebirds in Old Orchard Beach and Biddeford.
The designation would give officials some control over nearby activities and restrict access to areas where the birds have established nests. More protection is badly needed because piping plovers have endured another year of little breeding success in the state, officials said.
"They're one of the most endangered species we have in Maine," said Judy Camuso, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
There are only about 2,000 breeding pairs of the shorebird worldwide, and just 20 pairs nested in Maine this year, down about two-thirds from the number spotted a few years ago. Officials said changes in habitat, both natural and man-made, have limited where the birds can nest, and the chicks are often killed by wild animals and domestic cats and dogs.
The expansion would add about one-third of a mile of beach to the essential habitat designated in the southern part of Old Orchard Beach around Goosefare Brook, and about eight-tenths of a mile to the northern section of town, near the boundary with Scarborough.
In Biddeford, officials want to add about a mile of beachfront, said wildlife biologist Lindsay Tudor.
Designating an area as essential habitat allows officials to put up stakes and twine to fence off an area where piping plovers have established a nest, keeping people away.
They also put a wire "exclosure," about 8 feet square, directly over the nest. That cage allows the birds to come and go, but has openings that are too small for predators, including skunks, minks and foxes.
Wildlife officials said it's a critical time for Maine's piping plovers.
"We've got to do this now, because we're going to lose this bird if we don't," Tudor said.
She said nature has caused some problems for plovers, with winter storms that wash away prime habitat for nests. The birds are very particular about where they establish nests, preferring a stretch of sandy beach with sparse vegetation.
Strong spring storms will sometimes wash away newly laid eggs, she said, and human activity has made some habitats uninviting to the birds.
Tudor said piping plovers, which eat bugs and larvae, have life spans of about seven to eight years. They lay just four eggs most years; by comparison, ducks lay 12 to 18 a year and can produce a sizable brood even with 50 percent mortality.
Maine's goal is to have 80 breeding pairs of piping plovers, but the numbers have been dropping.
The number of birds that still come to the state in summer is so small that state and federal wildlife officials have launched a full investigation into the death of a fledgling plover found in Kennebunkport last week.
The situation has prompted the wildlife department to step up efforts to establish new essential habitat areas. Shortages of manpower and money had kept the department from pushing for new designations for about a decade. The effort is time-consuming, requiring negotiations with private landowners and public hearings before the department can act.
That's one reason Old Orchard Beach is an attractive area for designating habitats - the beach is owned by the town.
"In other communities, it can get downright nasty," said Gary Lamb, the town's director of planning and community development.
He said Old Orchard sees protection of the birds as a positive goal and is working cooperatively with state officials. A presentation on expansion of the habitat areas will be held tonight at 7 p.m. in the Town Council chambers.
On Tuesday, beach visitors were split on the idea of expanding the zones.
Gail Lewis of Auburn, Mass., who spends summers in Ocean Park, supports saving the birds and wants the town to keep the beach clean.
She noted that the last area protected with a fence and exclosure this year, off Temple Street, covers an empty nest where animals ate the eggs weeks ago and adult plovers had long since departed.
Stan Tieva, visiting from Minnesota, noted that the off-limits area is relatively small, extending only about 10 feet onto a sandy area of the beach.
"I think there's enough room out here to save birds and for people, too," Tieva said.
Camuso, the wildlife biologist, said it seems that once people see the piping plover chicks - which she described as "like marshmallows on sticks" - they become protective and less concerned about losing a few feet of beach.
Camuso said losing the birds would be devastating.
"Whenever you take one piece of the system out, it's a symptom that the system isn't functioning the way it should be," she said. "It's like a symphony - if you take out one instrument at a time, it's still music, but it's not the same."
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:
Originally published by By EDWARD D. MURPHY Staff Writer --.
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