Getting ready for a summer vacation on Georgia’s coast? Remember that while your family will be enjoying the beach, many wildlife species depend on it.
Some coastal areas popular with people in late spring and early summer are important nesting habitat for protected birds such as American oystercatchers, Wilson’s plovers and least terns. Examples include 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 use beaches.
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 April through July. After hatching, chicks hide on the beach or in the grass. Disturbance by humans or pets can cause adult birds to abandon nests and chicks, exposing them to extreme heat and predators.
These birds depend on a thin ribbon of habitat squeezed between the ocean and the vegetated dunes, a habitat also enjoyed by thousands of beach-goers. With care, these two sets of beach users can successfully coexist, but it will take people learning and observing some bird-friendly beach guidelines.
Tim Keyes, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, encourages beach-goers to avoid posted sites, walk below the high-tide line, watch beach birds only from a distance and back away from any 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.
“Typically, if you’re in the wrong place, the birds will try to let you know it – it is just a matter of paying attention,” said Keyes, who works for the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section.
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.
The problems are similar for migrating seabirds and shorebirds. Georgia beaches provide vital stopover sites for species such as red knots flying from South America and the Arctic. Red knots flushed from feeding might not gain the weight they need to survive their more than 9,000-mile migration.
Beach-goers are urged to leave their 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. People also are asked to keep house cats inside and not feed feral cats.
Beach-nesting bird photographs, tips and video are available at www.georgiawildlife.org/beachbirds.
Georgians can also help conserve Wilson’s plovers and other rare and endangered animals by purchasing a bald eagle or hummingbird license plate, or donating directly to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund. This support is vital to the Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds to protect Georgia’s nongame wildlife, rare plants and natural habitats for future generations. Details at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation or (478) 994-1438.
Best Bird Beach Behavior
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.)
- 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 federally protected species.)
- Keep house cats indoors, and don’t feed feral cats. Cats often prey on birds.