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Maine's endangered plovers weather climate change

A piping plover on Popham Beach. Their nesting areas are cordoned off to protect the birds and their hatchlings, and their numbers are rebounding.
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
A piping plover on Popham Beach. Their nesting areas are cordoned off to protect the birds and their hatchlings, and their numbers are rebounding.

On a bright, blustery morning in Scarborough, a three-member team is out surveying nesting sites for piping plovers and least terns, two endangered shorebirds in Maine.

The secluded beach the survey team chose is a prime spot. A dredge of a nearby river over the winter rejuvenated the depleted sand, leaving a broad expanse of beach edging up to dunes bordering a nearby country club.

Not all of Maine's beaches have had the same treatment. Powerful storms this winter tore chunks out of the shoreline, battering private homes, piers and shorebirds' nesting sites.

Beaches change all the time, as sand moves and shifts naturally, said Laura Minich Zitske, director of the coastal birds project at Maine Audubon. But the storm damage this year was something different.

"Beaches change all the time, but it was concerning because there was more loss of sand than we are used to," Zitske said.

And as a warming climate pushes up sea levels and drives more extreme storms, Zitske said that the future success of threatened shorebirds depends on how humans adapt.

"It is really how we respond to that change," Zitske said. "Do we let the beaches move like they want to move? If so, the birds will be able to figure things out, but if we put up hardscape and make it so that we can’t move with the beaches, that will be more problematic for the birds."

Decades of development have interrupted the wide, sandy beaches plovers need to nest. The construction of housing, jetties and seawalls has cost plovers about two thirds of the Maine beaches used as nesting habitat, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The plover population in Maine was down to just a handful of breeding pairs back in the early 1980s. Last year nearly 160 nesting pairs were sighted.

Brad Zitske, Maine's state shorebird biologist — and married to Laura Zitske — said storm restoration efforts have increasingly moved away from rebuilding seawalls that disrupt beach patterns and toward the use of native grasses and other natural methods. And despite tensions between advocates for homeowner rights, public beach access and conservation, more people seem invested in avoiding artificial barriers to forestall oncoming ocean waters.

"That is definitely the future, using more of these nature based projects to try and get out in front of sea level rise and these powerful storms we’ve seen," Brad Zitske said.

"We use this phrase in our world," Zitske added. "What's good for the beaches is good for the birds; and vice versa."

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