If shorebirds, including migratory ones like the American Golden-Plover, had their druthers, they’d probably prefer to rest, nest, roost, feed, and breed on an undeveloped coastline with zero disturbance.
But since this is reality, they must deal with us. But there are practices we—ourselves as well as our pets, children, and maybe a few unenlightened loved ones—can take up to make it easier on our migratory friends.
Cue the National Audubon Society’s coastal stewardship program and its education campaign dubbed #ShareTheShore or #ComparteLaCosta. It has a major presence along the Atlantic Flyway, and we’ve looped in Lindsay Addison, a coastal biologist with Audubon North Carolina, to tell us about the program and how we can better share the shore.
Residing in Wilmington, North Carolina, Addison has been with Audubon North Carolina, the North Carolina State Office of the National Audubon Society, for almost 13 years. Her work and research support Audubon’s coastal stewardship through data collection for breeding and non-breeding birds via Audubon’s Coastal Sanctuary Program (where they manage about 40% of the state's nesting coastal waterbirds across 19 sites) on the Atlantic coast, among other work.
Audubon North Carolina team members like Addison work with site-based conservation solutions for shorebirds and other species. For example, Lea Island and Hutaff Island—together known as Lea-Hutaff Island—is a 5,641-acre undeveloped barrier island and marsh system that has remained undisturbed by development and sits between Figure Eight Island and Topsail Island north of Wilmington. It's heaven for birds.
Addison is quick to show off the island (seen here on Google Maps), comparing the undeveloped Lea-Hutaff Island—one of 96 Important Bird Areas in North Carolina—to the ultra-crowded neighboring islands.
“It's kind of like whiplash,” she says.
This is one of the top-level ways humans have shared the shore, as setting aside this island supports thousands of shorebirds, wading birds, waterfowl, and marsh birds during nesting, migration, and wintering seasons. We’re talking Least Terns, Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, Piping Plovers, Clapper Rails, Sharp-tailed Sparrows, and Seaside Sparrows. And while the American Golden Plover is uncommon to the area (if they're nearby, they are normally in the middle of the transatlantic part of their southbound migration journey), it’s not unheard of. Just check eBird!
Audubon staff posts and patrols tern and skimmer colonies on both islands throughout the year. However, when shorebirds aren’t resting and roosting on protected sands, they’re probably popping around heavily recreated beaches with humans—oversized umbrellas, summer novels, and all.
And Addison has some advice for us.
DON’T Do It For the Plot
If you see birds on a beach, "They are doing something important, even if it's just resting," Addison says. "Even if it's just walking around and pecking the ground."
Oftentimes flocks of birds on a sandy shore may prompt some beachgoers to do what beachgoers do best: Take awesome vacay pics.
“People see a group of birds and their first instinct is to grab their camera or their phone and then to walk into it and take that video or that footage of the bird flying,” Addison says. But here’s the thing about birds those folks don’t get: “They're undergoing this incredibly long trip that is energetically expensive.”
This, of course, is human disturbance. That action shot of your dog, child, or even yourself backdropped by a bunch of birds in flight interrupts whatever resting or refueling those birds were just doing. And for migratory birds, they absolutely need this time on the ground, away from flapping.
Addison and her team try to put it in ways that people understand.
"You would not survive the Jersey Turnpike without those pullouts where you can stop and go to the bathroom and get some Roy Rogers,” Addison says. Even many bird posting signs on North Carolina beaches read “Rest Area” to keep with this theme.
So the takeaway is this: If you notice birds, “Don't walk through them, don't let your dog chase them, don't let your kid chase them.”
And Addison wants to be clear, she is a dog owner. But she says she doesn’t allow Geordie, her Golden Retriever, to play in a way that hurts wildlife and therefore keeps him leashed. “He would totally chase birds if I let him because he's 2 and kind of dumb,” she says. (Geordie is within listening distance and hopefully understands Addison says this with love.)
Other dog owners have jumped in on this issue. A recent Audubon article—"Dog Lover to Dog Lover: It’s Time to Share the Shore"—states, "As shorebirds face innumerable obstacles to survive, small actions like leashing our pets or sticking to dog-friendly beaches can go a long way."
Addison says it can come down to people realizing that birds are wildlife. “They would never let their dog chase a deer or let their kid approach Bambi,” Addison says. So one important concept to grasp is that birds are wildlife, too, and we should be on the lookout for them and give them space.
Especially since birds could be around when we’re least expecting them.
Migration—It Ain't Just May and October
Migration on the Atlantic coast—at least for plovers, sandpipers, and their relatives—begins sooner than most people think, which is October and May.
But, Addison says, shorebird migration starts as early as July. That's when they start seeing the first wave of return coastal migrants like Black-Bellied Plovers and Sanderlings. “By August there are good numbers,” she says. Then by September or October, the time people usually associate with fall migration, migration season is already well underway.
Therefore, it's important to understand there could be more birds around than you think.
“It's like telling a first-grader about gravity,” Addison says of explaining to folks that migration happens well outside of those key spring and fall dates. "Young kids have never thought about it before, but if you bring it up, the light goes off. If they’re told about shorebird migration, adults connect the dots, too.”
“A big challenge is people just noticing that the birds are there in the first place," she says. "Because a lot of these cryptic breeding shorebirds are, you know, small and kind of brown.”
For example, Semipalmated Plovers like to hunker in footprints or tire tracks, and recreators might not even notice they're there at all.
Addison recommends just staying alert on the beach. And when you do see birds, try to give them space. Because even if you accidentally disturb a bird, it’s no one action causes the problem. It’s the aggregate.
“It's death by 1,000 cuts. You're probably not the only person to come to the beach that day,” Addison says. “It's the sum of all of the actions and that's the really hard thing for shorebirds. The first person flushes them once, then the next, and the next, and these birds can end up spending a lot of the day being moved by people or dogs. Then they don’t have time to feed and rest and get physically ready for the next leg of their trip. That’s the cumulative impact that no single person will see during their beach stroll.”
Finally, it’s important to share this knowledge with one another because that’s how behaviors are changed—or so we hope.
“This is one of the hardest things ... measuring," Addison says. "It’s like. ‘How many people did you reach? Did you change their behavior?’” And realistically, without an expensive study, it’s impossible to say. “From a personal standpoint," Addison says, "you end up seeing it on a more anecdotal level.”
But one example of success might be Wrightsville Beach, a very popular coastal destination. Addison and her colleagues have been working there since 2009 and can say confidently that beachgoers are used to seeing—and thankfully respecting, which is to say staying out of—bird postings.
“They kind of know what to do,” Addison says. “And then they might even start telling each other what to do, which is really the best thing.”
Therefore, the public is capable of stepping up. And the public is also very capable of stepping in ... as volunteers.
When Human Presence Is a Good Thing
We talked—a lot—about keeping people away from birds. Now let’s talk about people showing up for them.
Audubon North Carolina offers the Beach Bird Stewards program, which is an opportunity for members of the public to act as docents or ambassadors at nesting areas. Along the coast, these volunteers talk to people about resident and migratory birds, and ask people to respect their presence. Addison says they help Audubon North Carolina have more of a presence at nesting sites than they would have otherwise, especially since there are more volunteers than staff.
“They're so much more aware of what birds need and what they can do to help birds,” Addison says. And that’s extra valuable because they can take this knowledge back to their family and friends, neighbors, coworkers, and so on.
And they're nice. Addison doesn’t want folks to report, “I went to the beach and some bird person yelled at me.” Instead, there is an opportunity for a dialogue.
Scenario: You're a volunteer out counting birds with a scope. Someone comes up and asks “What are you doing?” or “Are you getting any good photos?” You could say, “Oh, this is actually a spotting scope. I'm counting migratory shorebirds. Did you know they come from the Arctic?” And so on.
“We want them to chat up beachgoers and, just have conversations … peer to peer, community member to community member,” Addison says. “And often, you know, that is infectious.”