BRUNSWICK — Those getting ready for a summer vacation on Georgia’s coast need to remember many wildlife species depend on the beach.
Some coastal areas popular with people in late spring and early summer are important nesting habitats 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 predators and extreme heat.
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 coexist successfully, but it will take people learning and observing some bird-friendly beach guidelines.
Tim Keyes, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, asked 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 often will 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.