BRUNSWICK — If you’re getting ready for a summer vacation on Georgia’s coast, remember that your family won’t be the only ones enjoying the beach.
Some coastal areas popular with people in late spring and early summer double as important nesting habitats for protected birds, such as American oystercatchers, Wilson’s plovers and least terns. Some of these locations include Little Tybee Island, Pelican Spit off Sea Island, Cumberland Island and the southern end of Jekyll Island.
Beach-nesting birds nest above the high-tide line on wide, terraced beach flats or in the edge of dunes. In Georgia, the birds lay eggs in shallow scrapes in the sand from April through July. After hatching, chicks hide on the beach or in the grass. Disturbance by humans or pets can cause adult birds to abandon nests and chicks, exposing them to extreme heat and predators.
Tim Keyes, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist, encourages beach-goers to avoid posted sites, walk below the high-tide line, observe beach birds only from a distance and back away from any nesting birds they accidentally disturb. Adults frightened from a nest will often call loudly and exhibit distraction displays, such as dragging one wing as if it’s broken.
“Typically, if you’re in the wrong place, the birds will try to let you know it — it is just a matter of paying attention,” Keyes said.
Human disturbance is a significant threat for these species, which already face risks from native predators and high spring tides that wash away nests and chicks. Pets also can be destructive, killing or scaring birds.
The problems are similar for migrating seabirds and shorebirds. Georgia beaches provide vital stopover sites for species such as red knots that fly from South America and the Arctic. Red knots flushed from feeding might not gain the weight they need to survive their more than 9,000-mile migration.
Beach-goers are urged to leave their dogs at home or keep them on a leash when visiting a beach where dogs are allowed. Owners who let their dogs chase shorebirds can be fined for harassing federally protected species. People also are asked to keep house cats inside and not feed feral cats.
For more information on beach-nesting birds, visit www.georgiawildlife.org/beachbirds.