By Kim Savides, Georgia Audubon/UGA Sea Grant Fellow
Migration along the coast is picking up, and so is Georgia Audubon’s work along the coast. In the last month, the number of shorebirds and warblers have swelled along the beaches, marshes, and maritime forests of coastal Georgia. Though many of these birds are visitors stopping by to use abundant food resources in the state, some will be staying to call Georgia home during the summer breeding season. And many of these species—migrants and breeders alike—are of conservation concern, presenting opportunities for bird biologists across organizations to form partnerships to better understand population levels and threats to birds.
This year Georgia Audubon is partnering with Manomet and other organizations up and down the Atlantic Coast to monitor shorebirds and potential disturbances through the Atlantic Flyway Disturbance Project. Humans and shorebirds alike love to flock around Georgia’s beaches. Though beach recreation may seem ecologically benign to many beachgoers, human activities around resting or breeding shorebirds can have impacts on their condition and breeding success throughout the year. To help understand the effects of human disturbances on the Georgia coast, we are surveying points spread out across Jekyll Island. At each point we look for and count focal shorebird species like the Wilson’s Plover, American Oystercatcher, and Red Knot, as well as the number of potential disturbances present like the number of people, dogs, boats, or other vehicles. We also take a three-minute behavioral observation of each focal species to determine if the bird is resting, foraging, or being alert to natural or human disturbances. While Jekyll has lower levels of recreation that many other beaches along the Atlantic coast, we still see human disturbance to shorebirds during every survey, including biking or running through roosting flocks, dogs off leash or on beaches closed to pets, and even low-flying planes and powered parasails flying over. By comparing data from sites like Jekyll with islands with higher levels of recreation, like Tybee Island, where our colleagues from Manomet are conducting the same surveys, we can begin to get a clearer view of how shorebirds respond to human recreation along the coast. And by collecting data as part of a larger, flyway-scale project, Georgia’s data will go towards helping biologists throughout the Atlantic Flyway research and manage human impacts to shorebirds.
Also on Jekyll Island this spring and summer, Georgia Audubon is continuing our partnership with the Jekyll Island Authority to monitor nesting Wilson’s Plovers. Wilson’s Plovers are bold but sneaky shorebirds which breed from long the Gulf Coast to southern Florida and up though southern Delaware. Throughout much of its breeding range, the species is considered of conservation concern, including in Georgia where it is part of the State Wildlife Action Plan. Tracking how many plovers are breeding and the success of the nesting season is of great value to managers and researchers. But to get this data we have to find nests and monitor them closely throughout the breeding season, which can be very tricky. Wilson’s Plovers lay eggs in shallow depressions, called “scrapes”, dug in dune habitat along the shore. Finding these cryptic nests takes keen attention to behavioral cues, tracks in the sand, and a lot of luck! Males will dig multiple scrapes before wind and rain erase them or a female selects one as a nest. After the female lays three eggs and the pair incubates for about a month, the chicks will hatch and quickly join their parents and forage on their own before officially fledging in another month. But between fresh scrape and fledging, many hazards exist, including storms, ghost crabs, raccoons, loose pets, crows, and recreating humans just to name a few. While most of these threats are naturally occurring, it is important for biologists to monitor nests and ascertain why some nests fail. By monitoring nests, we can determine why certain nests are unsuccessful and propose management strategies if unnatural levels of nest failure occur. At the time of writing, we are in the very beginning of nesting season, and have found over 20 scrapes between a dozen pairs of Wilson’s Plovers within the monitoring area on Jekyll Island. As more plovers pair up and establish territories, we will be busy looking for scrapes and nests, and hope to watch many of them successfully fledge chicks as the season continues.
Looking ahead to later this spring and summer, we are excited to continue efforts with Georgia and South Carolina DNRs to monitor and track migrating Red Knots, as well as starting up a new partnership with University of Georgia professor Dr. Clark Rushing to research the breeding biology of two species along the coast—the Painted Bunting and Chuck-will’s-widow. These projects are aimed at filling gaps in our knowledge of how these species interact with and use Georgia’s coastal resources. We are excited to work with our array of partner organizations to better understand the conservation issues of birds and look forward to these projects and more to come along the Georgia coast.
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