More Than Ever, Beach-nesting Birds Need Their Space

Brunswick, GA
Thursday, April 20, 2017 - 13:45



Nesting season is on for Georgia’s beach-nesting birds, and the loss of key sites to Hurricane Matthew last year has increased the need for people to avoid areas these birds and fellow migrants use to nest and forage.


There is a bright spot, however: On St. Simons Island’s East Beach and Pelican Spit off Sea Island, the Beach Stewards Program will be there to help, said Tim Keyes of the state Department of Natural Resources. “That’s a great resource for the public to engage with the wildlife at these sites.”


The guidance is needed. When Matthew hit in October, the storm destroyed or diminished most of Georgia’s offshore bars that serve as nest sites largely free of predators and human disturbance. These shoals of sand, such as St. Catherines and Ogeechee bars, “have been drivers in productivity for shorebird and seabirds,” said Keyes, who works with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.


With some bars gone and others smaller and more susceptible to being washed over, nesting stakes are higher on beaches where birds and vacationers mix, including Jekyll, St. Simons and Little Tybee islands.


Beach-nesting birds such as American oystercatchers, black skimmers and least terns nest above the high-tide line on wide beach flats or in the edge of dunes. In Georgia, the birds lay eggs in shallow scrapes in the sand April through July. Until they learn to fly, chicks hide on the beach or in the grass.


Human disturbance poses a significant threat. Eggs and young can be hard to see. Spooked adult birds can abandon nests 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. Also, pets can kill or scare birds.


Migrating seabirds and shorebirds face similar issues. Georgia beaches provide vital stopover sites for species such as red knots, which migrate migration from the Arctic to South America. Red knots flushed from feeding might not gain the weight needed to survive their more than 9,000-mile migration.

Keyes urged people to do their part by:

  • Avoiding posted sites.
  • Walking below the high-tide line.
  • Watching beach birds only from a distance and backing away from birds accidentally disturbed.
  • Leaving dogs at home or keeping them on a leash when visiting a beach where dogs are allowed.

Visitors to St. Simons’ busy East Beach are also encouraged to look for a blue-vested beach steward.

Coordinated by DNR and the Georgia Shorebird Alliance through a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, these volunteers helped protect a colony of 100-plus pairs of least terns, as well as Wilson’s plovers, fledge chicks on one of the state’s most heavily visited beaches last summer. Stewards work weekends and holidays, even setting up spotting scopes so visitors view the birds from a safe distance.

Beach-nesting birds often let intruders know when they are too close. Adults will call loudly and exhibit distraction displays, such as dragging a wing as if it’s broken. Some dive-bomb on people and pets.

Keyes noted, too, that owners who let their dogs chase shorebirds can be fined for harassing federally protected species. “Dogs and beach wildlife are incompatible.”

There are several coastal areas where pets are excluded by regulation or law and owners can be cited for bringing a dog. These include the Little Tybee beachfront, Pelican Spit, Satilla Marsh Island and Little Egg Island bar. (Little Egg bar, Pelican Spit and Brunswick Dredge Island, another key nesting site, are also closed to people.)

“With a little bit of effort and concern, we all can enjoy the beach,” Keyes said.

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 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
  • 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