Backyard Birding: Sharing the Beach with Shorebirds

By Lee Halasz

Lee Halasz is a native of Australia and is a former conservation professional with the Queensland State Government. He and his family now reside in western Massachusetts, and he volunteered his time with us in 2015. This spring, we feature a series of bird stories Lee wrote to celebrate #birdyear. 

Will you be at the beach this summer? Keep an eye out for breeding shorebirds.

plover and chicks.jpg

Piping plover and chicks (Credit: Kaiti Titherington/USFWS)

The beach is a fantastic place to be. All year round it is a fun and inspiring element of our landscape, and part of that enjoyment comes from being around distinctive coastal birds.

Most of us only go the beach in summer, when we can enjoy the weather and water to relax and have fun. Summer is also an important time for many shorebirds; it is when they come to Northeast beaches to breed.

The beach is a thin strip of naturally precarious habitat in a dynamic environment. It is subject to the power of waves and wind, and extremes of temperature. Despite these challenges, this is where beach-nesting shorebirds have successfully bred through time.

The increased use of beaches by humans has introduced a new variable. The Northeast becomes home to more people every year, and over time society has become more affluent and gained greater freedom to enjoy coastal areas. These patterns have resulted in greater impacts on coastal environments and coastal wildlife, and consequently we need to take actions to ensure that beaches remain a safe place for shorebirds.

Beachgoers can drastically reduce the breeding success of beach-nesting shorebirds. The eggs and chicks are well camouflaged and can unknowingly be crushed by people walking above the high tide line. Also, if adults are flushed from the nest, chicks and eggs can suffer heat stress without the protective shading offered by the parents, and unattended eggs and chicks can be destroyed and eaten by predators.

There are some great shorebird recovery success stories. In Massachusetts, targeted actions have seen piping plover populations bounce back dramatically in recent decades, and American oystercatcher populations are recovering impressively since returning to the Northeast in the last half century.

oystercatcher chicks

American Oystercatcher chicks (Credit: Stephanie Koch/USFWS)

Some of this success is attributable to programs like the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative that increase the focus on shorebird conservation. For example, many of the contributing partners organize summer beach stewards who raise awareness of nesting shorebirds, educate people about them, monitor nests, and notify authorities if protective action is needed.

How You Can Help

There are things all beachgoers can do to minimize their impact on breeding shorebirds:

  • Have a carry-in carry-out policy: Trash left on beaches can attract nest predators.
  • Don’t feed gulls: While it may be fun and seems harmless, gulls can eat shorebird eggs and chicks.
  • Walk your dog on a leash: Dogs love to chase and catch wildlife, including shorebirds, and just the stress of being chased, especially repeatedly, can lead to eggs and chicks being abandoned.
  • Respect wildlife protection signs: Please keep out of posted nesting areas.
  • Be aware of wildlife: If birds are calling loudly around you, dive-bombing you, or feigning injury, there are probably nests nearby. Please back away.

Perhaps the most important thing anyone can do is to recognize that shorebirds live and breed on the same beaches that people enjoy.

Summer is coming. Enjoy it, but please enjoy and respect the shorebirds also.

sunset terns.jpg

Terns at sunset on Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: USFWS)

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