Georgia’s beaches are not only vacation hotspots, in spring and summer they’re top spots for nesting shorebirds and seabirds, and for migrating species fueling up for long flights to the Arctic.
American oystercatchers, Wilson’s plovers and least terns use sites such as Little Tybee Island, Pelican Spit off Sea Island, Cumberland Island and the southern end of Jekyll Island. Among other species, black skimmer, royal tern and gull-billed tern also nest on beaches and offshore sandbars.
In nesting areas, human disturbance is a significant threat for these birds, which already face risks from native predators and high spring tides. Pets also can be destructive, killing or scaring birds.
To help beach-nesting birds, visitors to Georgia beaches are encouraged to:
- Avoid posted sites.
- Walk below the high-tide line.
- Watch beach birds only from a distance and back away from nesting birds they accidentally disturb.
Adults frightened from a nest will often call loudly and exhibit distraction displays, such as dragging one wing as if it’s broken. Sometimes the birds will dive-bomb people too close to their nest, according to Tim Keyes, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.
Also, leave dogs at home or keep them on a leash when visiting a beach where dogs are allowed. Owners who let their dogs chase shorebirds can be fined for harassing federally protected species.
“Dogs and beach wildlife are incompatible,” Keyes said.
There are several coastal areas where pets are excluded by regulation or law and owners can be cited for bringing a dog. These sites include the entire beachfront portion of Little Tybee Island, Pelican Spit, Satilla Marsh Island, and St. Catherines Island and Little Egg Island bars. (The bars, Pelican Spit and Brunswick Dredge Island, another key nesting site, are also closed to people.)
Beach-nesting birds nest above the high-tide line on wide, terraced beach flats or in the edge of dunes. In Georgia, the birds lay eggs in shallow scrapes in the sand from mid-March through July. After hatching, chicks hide on the beach or in the grass. Disturbance by humans or pets can cause adult birds to abandon eggs and chicks, exposing them to extreme heat and predators. On a hot day, “in as little as 10 minutes the eggs can be cooked,” Keyes said.
Keyes, who works for the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section, explained that the threats are similar for migrating seabirds and shorebirds. The coast provides vital stopover sites for species such as federally threatened red knots flying from South America and the Arctic. Red knots flushed from feeding might not gain the weight needed to survive their more than 9,000-mile migration.
“With a little bit of effort and concern, we all can enjoy the beach,” Keyes said. Case in point: Last year, a least tern colony fledged chicks on popular St. Simons East Beach.
As with all migratory bird species, shorebirds and seabirds in Georgia are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Some species, such as piping plovers and red knots, have additional protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Georgians can help conserve these and other rare and endangered animals by purchasing or renewing a bald eagle or hummingbird license plate, or donating to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund tax checkoff when filing state income taxes. The Nongame Conservation Section depends largely on fundraisers, grants and direct donations to protect Georgia’s nongame wildlife, rare plants and natural habitats. Details at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/support or (478) 994-1438.
Beach Bird Tips
How can you help birds when visiting a Georgia beach?
- Stay in high-traffic areas; birds are less likely to nest where crowds gather.
- Walk below the high-tide line or on wet-sand beaches.
- Avoid posted nesting sites.
- Observe beach birds only from a distance. Back away from any nesting birds you accidentally disturb. (Adults frightened from a nest will often call loudly and exhibit distraction displays, such as dragging one wing as if it’s broken.)
- If you see people disturbing nesting birds, respectfully tell them how their actions can affect the birds. If the people continue, contact DNR’s ranger hotline, (800) 241-4113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Leave dogs at home or keep them on a leash when visiting a beach where they’re allowed. (Owners who let their dogs chase shorebirds can be fined for harassing protected species.)
- Keep house cats indoors, and don’t feed feral cats. Cats often prey on birds.
Beach-nesting bird photographs, tips and video are available at www.georgiawildlife.org/beachbirds.