Birds can be divisive.
There are those who provide the subject matter for the 2011 film “The Big Year.” Others are better suited for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 film “The Birds.” In the Hitchcock thriller, a traveling salesman sits at a diner and lays it all out there for those assembled — “Gulls are scavengers anyway. Most birds are. Get yourselves guns and wipe them off the face of the earth.”
The gentleman has had it with the “messy animals.”
When National Geographic Magazine roped bestselling author Jonathan Franzen to write its cover story on “Why Birds Matter” for the January 2018 issue, even the writer confessed his ambivalence to the creatures who can so easily fly while people must board craft to alight.
“For most of my life, I didn’t pay attention to birds,” Franzen wrote, before admitting to developing an obsession once he reached his 40s.
But 2018 has been dubbed the Year of the Bird and 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Few places do migratory shorebirds quite like Coastal Georgia. If you are more of “The Big Year” type and are out to fix your gaze on some winged creatures, this is a prime location.
The significance of Georgia’s coast to migratory shorebirds will be celebrated Thursday afternoon at the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge, where the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network is to officially name the state barrier islands as a “landscape of hemispheric importance.” It is the 100th such designation by the group. The WHSRN named the Altamaha River Delta as a site of regional importance in 1999.
“The Georgia coast has a number of things going for it, from a shorebird perspective — there’s a very high tidal range, 6-9 feet on a relatively shallow-sloped shoreline,” said Tim Keyes, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. “That means every low tide, we’ve got thousands of acres of exposed sand and mud flats available for foraging. Compare that to the Outer Banks of North Carolina — or South Florida, where you’ve got 1-2-foot tide range — you’ve got significantly less foraging availability.
“We’ve also got several large rivers, including the Altamaha, which are unimpeded over the entire length, so there’s a lot of nutrients and sediment coming down those rivers, which enrich the estuaries, improve foraging and provide more sediment for bars and flats for foraging. We are relatively undisturbed.”
The mild climate and natural state of so many inlets help provide a place where these kinds of birds can set down at any time of the year.
“We document hundreds of thousands of shorebirds using our coast in a given year,” Keyes said. “We’ve documented more than 50 percent of the known rufa red knot, which is a threatened species. More than 60 percent of Great Lakes piping plover population, which is critically endangered, and then really high numbers — high percentages — of birds like whimbrel, short-billed dowitcher and oystercatcher, all pretty high percentages of the known population.”
Many shorebirds are at risk when it comes to human activity, and those of their pets, Keyes said.
“For the beach nesters the greatest threats are rising seas, and resultant increased high-tide/wash over events, and human disturbance,” said Alice Keys, vice president of One Hundred Miles and the wife of Tim. “Especially on islands that are easily accessible by car, dogs and human activity can prevent birds from adequately protecting their eggs from the sun, and at worse, can destroy eggs.”
There are signs on the south end of Jekyll Island, for instance, warning people not to bring their dogs into the area. Also, rope and stakes mark off plover nesting grounds. There are also further risks to the bird population created through new directives from the federal Interior Department.
The Trump administration in April announced its intention to change the enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which could create threats for these birds. For instance, the previous practice was if a company or someone killed protected birds during the course of doing something else — the birds killed as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would count here — then those responsible could be prosecuted civilly by the Interior Department. Now, the party responsible for killing the birds would only be liable if they set out to kill the birds on purpose.
Seventeen leading U.S. Fish & Wildlife and Interior Department officials from the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush — and others going back to Richard Nixon — sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke encouraging him in January to not pursue this path, stating, “Birds are, quite literally, the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine.’ How birds fare in the world indicates how all wildlife and habitat, and by extension human populations, will fare.
“It is not just poetry that led Rachel Carson to title her seminal work, ‘Silent Spring.’ All the past administrations for which we have worked have struck a balance and worked diligently and in good faith with industries that had significant impacts on birds, such as oil and gas, coal, electric utilities, commercial fishing, communications, transportation, national defense and others to reasonably address unintended take. It can be done. In fact, it has been done.”
However, Zinke chose to go in a different direction.
Alice Keyes suggested some of the things people can do to help shorebirds include minimizing shoreline hardening, reducing disturbance and interaction with people and pets and supporting beach stewardship programs.
She also said it is important to volunteer to educate people. Tim Keyes said that in his experience, if people are doing something that could be a threat to shorebirds, they tend to not realize it at the time.