Coastal Georgia has some special guests staying in the area right now and taking up temporary residence on the beaches to rest from their thousand-mile journeys.
Nesting shorebirds are making their annual pit stop on Georgia’s beaches this spring, and biologists and environmentalists with the state Department of Natural Resources, Manomet, Inc., Georgia Shorebird Alliance and the Coastal Georgia Audubon Society are monitoring the birds and urging beach visitors to be aware of their fellow guests.
Peach State beaches play a critical role in the international migration of the shorebirds, said Abby Sterling, a shorebird biologist with Manomet, Inc. Local beaches provide habitat for the birds, which face significant threats and declining population numbers.
“Georgia is a very important link in this larger system and in this larger story, and I hope people feel excited about and proud about spring when we’ve got migration going on and we’ve got nesting going on,” Sterling said. “All of us caring about our backyards and our beaches means that we can provide a good home for all of these incredible shorebirds that are visiting our area, or some that are here and are raising their chicks here.”
Rope lines were put up on the beaches at the end of March. Gould’s Inlet on St. Simons is a popular beach for the nesting birds.
Nesting shorebirds in the area include Wilson’s Plovers, Least Turns and Oystercatchers.
“I tend to think of Gould’s Inlet as a wildlife beach in a way because when you go to Gould’s it’s got the dunes, the sea oats, all of those features that make it really important habitat for shorebirds and other wildlife, including sea turtles that are going to be nesting soon too,” Sterling said.
Migrating shorebirds use the beaches to feed and nest. They rest during high tide periods when unable to feed.
Unlike sea turtles, which lay their eggs in holes in the ground on the beaches, shorebirds lay their eggs in nests above ground. This puts the eggs, which blend in well with the sand, at high risk of being stepped on or taken by predators.
“Off-leash dogs can be really problematic because birds are afraid of dogs. They view them as predators even it’s just a dog chasing a tennis ball,” Sterling said. “That can be really scary for birds, and they will fly off the nest to protect it, but then it leaves it vulnerable.”
When the eggs hatch, the small and fuzzy chicks will stray from the roped off areas and run around on the beach. The tiny creatures are easy for the untrained eye to miss.
“They could hide in grass, they could hide in bushes, they could even sit right down in the compression of somebody’s footprint and you wouldn’t even see them,” Sterling said. “They blend in really well, and the main thing that we can do is just be aware of what’s going on and make sure that we give the birds as much space as possible. That’s what the rope line and the signs we put up do, is just kind of raise awareness and remind people.”
People walking with dogs are encouraged to keep their pets on leashes anywhere they see the signs and ropes indicating nesting areas.
“Those birds might have just flown literally thousands of miles for four days without stopping to get to our beach, and they need to rest and feed in order to keep flying on this huge journey all the way up to the Arctic,” Sterling said.
Several other easy and common sense measures can be taken by beach visitors to promote safety for the birds.
“Staying on the wet sand is really helpful because then you’re not up in a nesting area,” Sterling said. “Walk around a flock of birds that might be feeding or resting because when they fly they waste valuable energy that might be taking them on a journey across the whole continent. And...keeping your dog leashed really is one of the best things you can do, especially if you’re in an area where you see shorebirds.”
Beach walkers are also encouraged to fill in holes and pick up trash, as both actions will help the birds.
Those wishing to observe the magic of the migration season without disturbing the birds can stop by Gould’s Inlet, take a seat in the sand and look out at the sandbar between St. Simons and Sea Island, where Oystercatchers are making use of the natural resources.
“There are hundreds if not maybe thousands of shorebirds out there on that sandbar in between St. Simons and Sea Island feeding, so that’s a really good place to watch from a distance, but (do) not go out there because that’s a really important habitat for birds,” Sterling said.
Anyone interested in volunteering to help monitor shorebirds this spring can email Sterling at email@example.com.