Anthropogenic disturbance on shore breeding birds

Anthropogenic disturbance on shore breeding birds

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The coastal regions of South Africa face various threats, ranging from widespread global issues such as climate change to astounding rates of encroachment due to human development. Along with these larger concerns, it is also necessary to examine and address the cumulative impacts of minor, everyday forms of disturbance, such as the effects recreational beach use have on coastal wildlife and habitats. Note that the Garden Route shoreline, being a popular holiday destination given its natural beauty, is continuously subjected to an increase in tourism and resultant developments.

Shorebirds that nest on the ground are notably vulnerable to beach visitors in high-tourism areas. By way of illustration, the White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus) experienced a considerable reduction in numbers (40% to 60% in the Western Cape) over the past three decades, demonstrating an unfortunate worldwide trend of a decline in shorebird populations.

Despite their hefty economic and ecological importance, environmental policies and enforcement often neglect sandy beaches. For this reason, the NVT’s shorebird conservation research aims to use field observations, experiments and monitoring to determine the influence humans (and dogs) have on shorebird survival on our local beaches. The intention is to draft conservation management recommendations to minimise the anthropogenic impact on shorebirds and coastal habitats and to reduce the chances of loss. Given that these recommendations will be based on current research and stem from a sound scientific perspective, those driving our community will be in a better position to make appropriate decisions, with due consideration for both economic development and the need to conserve and protect the environment. 

Along our stretch of coastline, the NVT opted to follow a socio-environmental approach to the dire situation shore-breeding birds are facing. To address the apparent lack of education and awareness about shore birds, the NVT made accurate and locally relevant information available to the public. This included large billboards on beaches, leaflets, articles in local papers and a strong, positive media campaign that took the form of a series of “soap operas” (Sands of Change) on the life and times of plovers and oystercatcher on our beaches. Cute cartoon characters called Sandy and Rocky, who are the ambassadors for our campaign, were developed and the public were invited to adopt and name some of the tiny shorebird chicks.  

In terms of shorebird research on the beaches, the NVT implemented nesting-area signs, placed at least 30 m away from an active nest, and also conducted many surveys with beach users over the past couple of breeding seasons.

Armed with sound scientific research, the organisation was then in a prime position to influence management strategies. By engaging authorities and all stakeholders, the NVT adjusted the management of beaches by implementing a new colour-coded system. Beach entrances, stretching from the Greater Plettenberg Bay to Nature's Valley, are now equipped with a large board with colour-coded areas indicating various zonings for use by dogs.

Presently, the results strongly suggest that increased public awareness of nesting areas as well as the reduction of dogs in hotspot breeding areas has increased the breeding success of White-fronted Plovers and African Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus moquini). What should be noted is that natural predation as well as tidal events (e.g. extreme spring tides and flooding events) also play a major role in the success of the birds that breed in the transition between land and sea. Nevertheless, given that the holistic approach followed over the course of this project has already resulted in an increase in breeding success and assisted in ensuring the persistence of the White-fronted Plover and Oystercatchers, it is imperative that this work continues in order to reach a breeding rate that can be sustained over the long term to the benefit of these species.