Give Beach-Nesting Birds Space: Why and How

Brunswick, GA
Tuesday, May 21, 2019 - 10:15

Georgia’s beaches are not only vacation hotspots, 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.

When nesting, human disturbance is a significant threat for these birds, which also face risks from native predators and high spring tides. Pets can be destructive, too, killing or scaring birds.

Visitors to Georgia beaches can help beach-nesting birds and migrating species by:

  • Avoiding posted sites.
  • Walking below the high-tide line.
  • Watching beach birds only from a distance.
  • Backing away from any nesting birds they accidentally disturb.

Adults frightened from a nest will often call loudly and exhibit distraction displays, such as dragging a wing as if it’s broken. Sometimes the birds will dive-bomb people who get too close to their nest, said wildlife biologist Tim Keyes of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Keyes also encouraged visitors to 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 include the 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, also are 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 people 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.

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,” said Keyes, who works for the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Wildlife Conservation Section.

For example, least terns fledged chicks on St. Simons’ popular East Beach last year.

A Beach Stewards program powered by volunteers helps monitor least terns nesting on St. Simons’ busy East Beach. Participants inform the public and steer dogs and beach-goers away from the roped-off colony. Interested in being a Beach Steward? Contact Keyes, (912) 222-0424 or tim.keyes@dnr.ga.gov.

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.

DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section works to conserve shorebirds, seabirds and other Georgia wildlife not legally fished for or hunted, as well as rare plants and natural habitats. The agency depends primarily on fundraisers, grants and contributions. That makes public support critical.

Georgians can help by contributing to the state’s Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund. Here’s how: 

Visit www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/annualreport to see how support is put to work for wildlife.

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 rangerhotline@dnr.ga.gov.
  • 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 tips and video are available at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/birds (click “Share the Beach”).

Project Promotes Ecotourism, Shorebird Connection

The University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is partnering with the nonprofit Manomet to engage ecotourism kayak and charter boat outfitters in coastal bird conservation.

With funding from DNR’s Coastal Incentive Grant program, Katie Higgins of UGA Marine Extension and Manomet’s Abby Sterling will create an educational program this fall highlighting the coast’s role in providing important shorebird nesting areas in summer, as well as food for migrating shorebirds in fall and spring, and the importance of limiting disturbance at sites. Program participants will be provided educational resources from area experts. They’ll also receive a certificate that helps customers identify guides and companies invested in protecting the region’s critical sites and wildlife that depend on them.

The project is part of Manomet’s larger work to increase capacity for shorebird conservation within the Georgia Bight by partnering with organizations and agencies. The effort also aligns with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s mission to support and enhance Georgia’s coastal communities.

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