While sea turtles and diamondback terrapins are a concern during their nesting seasons presently, shorebirds are also taking advantage of what Georgia’s coast has to offer. And while attendance at local beaches rises along with the temperature, it’s important to keep an eye out for shorebird nests.
Abby Sterling, of the nonprofit Manomet, went over some of those details last week while speaking to members of the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative. Both shorebirds and colonial-nesting seabirds are going through their nesting periods currently, and that will last until around the end of the summer.
“They’re laying their eggs right out there on the sand in a little depression … and the whole point of both the eggs and the chicks is to blend in really well with their environment,” Sterling said.
Shorebirds — like oystercatchers and plovers — have territories with usually one nest per territory, which also makes it harder to know when you wander close to one. It’s not the same with the seabirds.
“When you’re talking about the seabirds, they’re colonial nesters and really difficult to miss,” Sterling said. “If you’ve got a colony of black skimmers nesting on the beach, a colony of least terns, you will know it. They’re very loud, they’re very aggressive, they will dive-bomb you. And within that colony there are a lot of nests.”
Shorebird nests can be well-camouflaged in wrack or heavily vegetated areas.
“These birds are nesting in places that you may not really expect,” Sterling said. “You know, a lot of times when you’re out on the beach you might think they like the very, very open expanses of beach — that’s true for some of the colonial nesting birds, but Wilson’s plovers, they have very small nests, and oystercatchers, they could be nesting in places you may not expect.”
They not only blend well, they tend to hide well, which leads to difficulty in making sure you don’t accidentally step on one.
“Once these chicks hatch, they’re precocial, they’re running around all over the beach, they’re staying with their parents,” Sterling said. “But, when the parents see any kind of disturbance or threat, they tell the chicks to run and hide, and they hide.”
The nests tend to be fairly widespread across the beaches of barrier islands, so there’s no one spot you can try to avoid. However, for instance, people are not supposed to bring pets to an area of Jekyll Island generally from south of South Dunes to St. Andrews, because dogs could scare off the birds. The shorebirds will fly off, which leaves their eggs vulnerable to overheating.
“It’s something to be aware of because if it’s really hot, it only takes a few minutes for those eggs to overheat,” Sterling said.
The state Department of Natural Resources, with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, conducted a study on shorebird nesting threats and discovered the top threats were tide overwash, human disturbance and predation from other creatures — raccoons and ghost crabs get into bird nests same as they get into sea turtle nests.
A project on Little St. Simons Island using cages over the nests in 2017 and 2018 proved beneficial, as they kept raccoons out. Meanwhile on Cumberland Island, a small project using solar-powered electric fencing appears to have significantly helped warding off coyotes and raccoons.