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Save the Shorebirds!

Vanishing Visitors to the Coast

The Problem

These extraordinary birds have a dilemma.

Many populations are declining.

American Oystercatcher ( Haematopus palliatus ). The North American population of American Oystercatchers are on the  2014 State of the Birds   Watch List , which lists species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action. This species is a “species of special concern” in several coastal states along the East Coast in the United States and are listed as a "yellow" species (indicating a national conservation concern) by The National Audubon Society.

American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus). The North American population of American Oystercatchers are on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action. This species is a “species of special concern” in several coastal states along the East Coast in the United States and are listed as a "yellow" species (indicating a national conservation concern) by The National Audubon Society.

With only about 217 species worldwide, shorebirds make up a rather small percentage of the more than 8,000 species of birds found on the planet. They are largely small birds, sometimes no bigger in size than the palm of your hand. To the causal coastline visitor, the birds can often be easily overlooked and out of mind.

Ignorance among the public regarding the status of shorebird populations is common.

Yet, most people that visit or live near the beach have probably seen some of these birds more than once.

The decline of shorebirds represents one of the top conservation crisis facing birds in the world today. Unfortunately, the examples of fading shorebird populations are everywhere, and has been for many years.

  • Overhunting in the late 1800s decimated the Western Hemisphere’s Eskimo curlew.

  • Since 1974, pectoral sandpipers have declined by more than 50 percent.

  • Hudsonian godwits have declined by more than 70 percent.

  • The bar-tailed godwit probably lost half of its global population within just the past few decades.

  • Populations of sanderlings, the ubiquitous shorebird of ocean beaches, have declined by as much as 80% since the 1970s. 

  • Roseate Terns and Piping Plovers are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

  • Other species of terns, American Oystercatchers, and Black Skimmers have special conservation status in most Atlantic coast states.

  • Many other coastal bird species are experiencing population declines or are facing significant threats from habitat loss and degradation. 


TOP 10 Ways to Protect Migratory Shorebirds, Beach-nesting Birds, & Nesting Waterbirds

  1. Save habitat! - Wetlands, beaches, mudflats, maritime forests and other natural coastal areas need your protection from destruction or harm. We all need to do a better job of managing land use for the needs of coastal wildlife. 

  2. Respect signs! - Do not walk through fenced areas on beaches where threatened and endangered animals may nest. Pedestrians may step on eggs or chicks or flush adult plovers from nests, exposing eggs to predators, excessive temperatures and other dangers.

  3.  Don’t approach or linger near nests! - No doubt, it’s exciting to watch a bird as it carries out its daily activities, but being too close can disturb the birds. Bring binoculars and view them from a distance.

  4.  Be a responsible pet owner! - Keep cats indoors. These animals can harass or even kill chicks and adults and destroy eggs.

  5.  Pick up trash and food on the beach! - Garbage attracts predators such as gulls and crows that prey upon bird eggs and chicks. Refrain from feeding gulls, and be sure to bring home all food and food containers you brought to the beach.

  6.  Speak up! - Report dog walking, vandalism or other suspicious activities near nesting areas to your local park ranger or police.

  7.  Be a responsible angler! - When fishing, be sure not to leave any equipment behind. Always dispose of fishing line and tackle appropriately.

  8.  Protect horseshoe crabs! - Turn them over when you find one on its back and make sure to protect horseshoe crab habitat for spawning time each spring when crabs lay their eggs.

  9.  Raise awareness! - Tell your family, friends, text, tweet and write about the troubles of beach-nesting and migratory coastal birds on social media.

  10.  Make government leaders responsible for wildlife! - Tell your governor to step up and be a climate and wildlife conservation leader. As government leaders in Washington D.C. ignore the risks of a warmer world to Americans and people across the globe, we need leadership from towns, cities and states on clean energy, climate action, and protection to wildlife.


A Few Species of Shorebirds & Nesting Waterbirds at risk


WHY PROTECT SHOREBIRDS?

Shorebirds are some of the world’s greatest travelers and great adapters of living in harsh coastal conditions. Many of these birds live in places with strong winds, intense storms, and widely fluctuating temperatures. Some shorebirds also undertake spectacular long-distance migrations of any bird. Several species of shorebirds will fly countless miles each year from their nesting grounds in the Arctic to winter in Central or South America, and then return to the Arctic the following spring. Some fly at altitudes exceeding 10,000 feet, and fly over 9,000 miles during migration and achieve cruising speeds approaching 50 mph. Scientific studies tell us that at least some birds during nonstop flights over the ocean cover nearly 2,000 miles in less than two days.

Each species has its own winged migration story, but in every case these annual journeys are among nature’s most epic dramas.

Migratory shorebirds resting and feeding in sight of New York City on a breezy early May day during spring migration.

Robin-sized red knots, for example, have an amazing marathon migration. Every year, members of the species’ Calidris canutus rufa subspecies travel approximately 9,300 miles each way between their South American wintering grounds in Patagonia to breeding territories in the Canadian Arctic, stopping only a few times to rest and refuel during their spring journey.

Bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica) also have an awe-inspiring migration each year. When some were outfitted with satellite transmitters, scientists found that the birds flew 7,145 miles from Alaska to New Zealand without stopping for food or water—a feat wildlife biologists compare to humans running at top speed nonstop for seven days. Shorebirds are simply some of the most remarkable and amazing animal species on Earth!

 
Scientists  released a report  announcing that a decrease of at least 5,000 Red Knots was observed at key wintering grounds in Tierra del Fuego, Chile from the previous year. Scientists reported population counts of wintering knots in other locations declined as well. The estimated current total population for the migratory shorebird is now unlikely to be more than 25,000.

Scientists released a report announcing that a decrease of at least 5,000 Red Knots was observed at key wintering grounds in Tierra del Fuego, Chile from the previous year. Scientists reported population counts of wintering knots in other locations declined as well. The estimated current total population for the migratory shorebird is now unlikely to be more than 25,000.

 

The dwindling Red Knot population along the Atlantic coast has been called one of the most precipitous declines of any bird species. The subspecies that occurs along the Atlantic coast once numbered 100,000-150,000, but sadly fewer than 30,000 remain today, a population drop of more than 75 percent since the 1980s. The plunge in numbers led the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Rufa red knot as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014.

There are many different conservation issues which have an impact on the long-term survival of shorebirds. The nature of these issues is often (but not always) a result of changes to their habitat, coastal development and the destruction of wetlands. There are also other threats, including global climate change and illegal hunting.

Least Sandpiper (notice the yellowish-green legs) in winter plumage.

Least Sandpiper (notice the yellowish-green legs) in winter plumage.

Each year, more and more coastal habitat is being lost or degraded due to sea level rise, and the desire by people to stabilize dynamic shorelines processes. The challenges to these birds and their long-term survival are real and quite serious.

Their decline points to an important wildlife crisis that demands our attention!

Terns and Wading Birds are declining too!

An adult Snowy Egret

An adult Snowy Egret

Not so long ago, a large number of coastal birds, which nested either on a beach or in a wetland, including, egrets, herons, and terns, were on the brink of extinction, all because of their sought-after plumage for women’s hats.

In the late 1800s, coastal birds with bright beautiful feathers were being attacked, for fashion. At the time it was trendy for women to wear hats adorned with feathers, wings and even entire taxidermied birds. It sounds crazy today, but the plume trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a deadly business, especially if you were a bird with brilliant feathers. Hunters killed and skinned many mature coastal birds during the spring, when their plumes were most colorful and attractive, often leaving their babies now orphaned hatchlings, to starve or be eaten by crows, coyotes, raccoons, or rats.

Woman wearing a hat made of bird feathers, circa 1912.   Library of Congress

Woman wearing a hat made of bird feathers, circa 1912.

Library of Congress

A common sight along the coast was for a rookery of several hundred coastal birds to be raided by plume hunters in the late spring, and in two or three days all the adult birds were killed. Slaughtered birds and their feathers were then shipped to millinery centers in New York and London where they were fashioned into hats. And coastal birds were not the only species under threat. In 1886, it was estimated, 50 North American bird species were being slaughtered for their feathers. In the late 1800s, not only were feathers used to adorn women's hats, but also piping plovers were used for human consumption, like Cornish hens.

A Forester’s tern (left) and a Black Skimmer (right).

A Forester’s tern (left) and a Black Skimmer (right).

The bloody madness finally began to stop when two crusading Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and her cousin, Minna Hall, started to boycott hats with the body parts of birds. The boycott was powerful and started a wave of people starting to save birds, culminating in the formation of the National Audubon Society and the passage of the Weeks-McLean Law (sponsored by Massachusetts Representative John Weeks and Connecticut Senator George McLean), also known as the Migratory Bird Act, by Congress on March 4, 1913. The law, a landmark in American wildlife conservation history, outlawed market hunting and prohibited interstate transport of birds. For generations, Americans had been able to help themselves to a seemingly unlimited supply of game along the coast, but those days are long gone.

An adult Least Tern with a fish in its beak.

An adult Least Tern with a fish in its beak.

Many wading birds and species of terns are still living with the horrible legacy of plume hunters in the 1800s. Bird populations were slow to recover for little blue herons, tricolored herons, snowy egrets, black skimmers, and least terns.

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Today, Black Skimmers are decreasing in population. While not listed as a threatened species at the federal level; black skimmers appear on the lists of several states. It's considered Endangered in New Jersey and a species of special concern in North Carolina and Florida. North American populations are on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists bird species that are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action.

Least Tern populations are also not doing well. They have declined by about 88% between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates a continental population of 60,000-100,000 breeding birds, and lists it as a Species of High Concern.

While many species of coastal birds have suffered population crashes since the 1980s due to a variety of threats, for lots of birds the slide in numbers can often be traced back to the stress and ruin brought about by the plume hunters in the late 1800s.

Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings along a Delaware Bay beach during spring migration.

Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings along a Delaware Bay beach during spring migration.


 

A BRIEF LIST OF THE MANY THREATS TO COASTAL & SEA BIRDS

 
  1. Habitat Loss

By far the number one reason for populations of coastal bird species to be in decline today is due to habitat loss or destruction.

For migratory birds this includes land along routes taken by long-distance fliers. The birds traverse many different countries where conservation efforts vary, either by country, individual states, or regions that maintain relatively few protected areas, and existing ones do not overlap sufficiently with the routes of migratory birds. For example, through the early twentieth century Least Sandpipers were among the many small sandpipers shot by commercial hunters on the Atlantic coast, but their numbers recovered after the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Today, one of their biggest conservation concerns is wetland degradation and destruction. 

Migratory shorebirds need healthy habitat in at least three distinct geographic areas:

  1. northern breeding grounds,

  2. southern non-breeding grounds,

  3. and stopover sites scattered along their migration routes.

Stopover habitats are crucial for shorebirds to rest and refuel during migration. For example, Sanderlings, cardinal-sized sandpipers, breed in the far north and may spend their non-breeding season as far south as the southernmost tip of South America, in Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina. To successfully complete their migration, Sanderlings depend on numerous stopover sites along the Atlantic and Pacific Flyways to feed on small invertebrates and rest. They require tundra habitat for breeding, beaches and mudflats for stopover habitat, and beaches during the winter. But increasing populations along the coast lead to a demand for more land to build buildings, boardwalks, homes, and shopping centers.

Decades of poorly planned coastal development has greatly decreased prime coastal bird habitat, from wide-open wild beaches to largely managed sandy strips, from wide-open saltwater wetlands and mud flats to parking lots and roadways to strip malls and homes.

Shorebirds Are Indicators of Healthy Ecosystems  Shorebirds are also good indicators of ecosystem health. Indicator species tell biologists how they and other creatures in the habitat are doing. For instance, a change in the shorebird population could suggest a decline in their food resources or a problem with one of the abiotic(nonliving, such as water and soil) components of the ecosystem.  (Picture of a Purple Sandpiper foraging for food on a rocky coast)

Shorebirds Are Indicators of Healthy Ecosystems
Shorebirds are also good indicators of ecosystem health. Indicator species tell biologists how they and other creatures in the habitat are doing. For instance, a change in the shorebird population could suggest a decline in their food resources or a problem with one of the abiotic(nonliving, such as water and soil) components of the ecosystem. (Picture of a Purple Sandpiper foraging for food on a rocky coast)

 

2. Climate Change

Wetlands, mudflats and beaches, which many migratory and beach nesting birds depend on for breeding, resting or feeding are in danger of changing and disappearing due to increasing sea levels, flooding, or more intense storms. Without these nesting or stop-over places, birds will have difficulties completing their long winged journeys or reproduction activities.

A piping plover nesting site flooded after an intense spring storm at Sandy Hook, NJ. The cage above the nest is to protect adult plovers and eggs from predators.

A piping plover nesting site flooded after an intense spring storm at Sandy Hook, NJ. The cage above the nest is to protect adult plovers and eggs from predators.

Global warming will influence the routes of migratory birds and their annual migration rhythm. Warmer spring temperatures in some regions of the world have led to an earlier arrival of many birds. For example, neotropical songbirds are arriving at their breeding areas in North America two or three weeks earlier than they did thirty years ago. Thus, they start to breed earlier. At the same time, increasing temperatures also make the vegetation bloom and insects hatch earlier. Unfortunately, these shifts are not in line with each other. The vegetation bloom and insect peak occurs even before the young birds hatch. As a result of  this mismatch, the birds cannot provide enough food for their offspring. While migrants are adapted to adjust their behaviour with annual changes in the weather, the decoupling of climatic variables between geographically separate breeding and non- breeding grounds is beginning to result in mistimed migration.

In 2010, scientists Jennifer R. Seavey, Ben Gilmer, and Kevin M. McGarigal wrote an article entitled, “Effect of sea-level rise on piping plover (Charadrius melodus) breeding habitat” in the Biological Conservation journal. The article points out that climate change is raising sea levels and threatening many low-lying coastal areas and associated wildlife including piping plovers. After assessing plover habitat on the barrier islands of Suffolk County, NY, the scientists found that if plover habitat cannot migrate inward due to human development, sea level rise is likely to reduce breeding areas. Over time, the spread of eroded beaches will increase the likelihood of conflicts between plovers and human recreation. In addition, more intense storms could also limit habitat, as a large hurricane could flood up to 95% of plover habitat.

 

3. HUMAN TRASH & DISTURBANCE

For most coastal birds in the United States, their success at raising a family depends on whether they will be able to run a gauntlet of problems and prowling predators from hungry raccoons and foxes, to bullying gulls and crows, to sneaky Norway rats and feral cats. Garbage left on beaches, including candy wrappers and soda cans, cause  trouble. It attracts predators, including foxes, skunks, raccoons, crows, and gulls. Large gulls and crows can terrorize breeding pairs of birds, causing them to abandon nests. Although some coastal birds may nest again if eggs are destroyed, young raised later in the season often don't survive as well as those raised in May and June.

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Where beaches are protected, people often have to share space from March to September with nesting birds. Areas become closed off, which may frustrate some beachgoers and fishermen. For example, at Sandy Hook in 2009, park rangers were searching for someone who removed two incubating piping plover eggs from a nest and damaged fencing that protected shorebirds. In 2012, federal park police were trying to track down someone who stole eggs from two piping plover nests at Breezy Point during the early morning hours on July 4. 
 
No matter how bright or colorful signs may be, some people will still enter into fenced off areas on a beach to jog or walk a dog that are clearly marked as “do not enter.” Beach closures often include a prohibition on dogs and kites. They are in place to protect breeding success for coastal birds from humans or dogs that can harm the birds by stepping on eggs or chicks. Trespassers can also cause adult birds to leave nests, exposing the eggs to very hot sand temperatures of up to 120 degrees, and can interrupt foraging activities.

 

4. A LIMITED POPULATION OF FOOD, INCLUDING HORSESHOE CRAB EGGS

Limulus polyphemus (Linnaeus), the American horseshoe crab, is an ecologically important species. Horseshoe crabs are important members of food webs along the coast of the eastern United States and parts of the Gulf of Mexico. Horseshoe crab eggs are a critical component of the diet of shorebirds on their northward migration.

Red Knots foraging on Horseshoe crab eggs along Delaware Bay, NJ.

Red Knots foraging on Horseshoe crab eggs along Delaware Bay, NJ.

The birds time their arrival to perfectly coincide with annual horseshoe crab spawning in May and June. The crabs lay billions of pearly-green, caviar-sized eggs. Many of these eggs would just dry out or wash away, but instead they become a banquet for migratory shorebirds. The birds only have a short time to build up enough fat reserves to fuel the last leg of their journey up north to the Arctic to raise a family.

More than half of the total flyway population of red knots, ruddy turnstones and semipalmated sandpipers depend on horseshoe crab eggs as a rich food supply.

Unfortunately, a reduction in horseshoe crab population over the last thirty years or more has cascaded through the migratory shorebird population, who depend upon their eggs for food. While people have harvested horseshoe crabs for centuries, the yields were usually small and localized, which had little impact on horseshoe crab populations. 

Currently, horseshoe crabs are harvested for bait in conch (welk) and American eel fisheries on the Atlantic Coast.

Horseshoe crabs suffered a substantial increase in harvest in the 1990s that spurred the need for management on a coast-wide scale. A combination of management efforts, research into alternatives for bait for conch fishermen and harvest quotas have started to very slowly turn the tide for horseshoe crabs. But in order for the population of Red Knots and other shorebirds to recover, the birds need several good years in a row of plentiful food supplies all along their journey.

Sanderlings in winter plumage foraging for food along the Atlantic Ocean at Sandy Hook, NJ.

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