Monday, June 15, 2009

Man's Best Friend Can Be an Unwelcome Guest on the Beach

When it comes to nesting shorebirds, man’s best friend can be an unwelcome intruder on Georgia’s beaches. With summer just around the corner, the state Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division encourages travelers to give birds a better chance of survival by leaving their dog at home when visiting the beach. This is especially important from April through July, the breeding season for Georgia’s native beach-nesting birds.

Residents on barrier islands can also help by keeping their cats indoors, since even well-fed cats are inclined to kill birds.

“Nesting shorebirds already face daunting natural dangers such as high spring tides and native predators,” said Brad Winn, coastal program manager for Wildlife Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section. “Birds that nest right on the beach do not tolerate the added pressure from pet dogs and free-ranging cats.

“Dogs harass adult shorebirds, eat eggs and kill chicks. Cats actively hunt in the dunes, killing adult shorebirds and chicks. We can do better as stewards of our wildlife.”

While Wildlife Resources encourages leaving dogs behind when visiting the beach, dogs are actually banned on certain islands protected by Georgia Board Rule 391-4-7. Williamson Island in Chatham County and Pelican Spit in Glynn County are open to the public but closed to dogs. Three sand spit islands are closed to the public and pets year-round: the sandy spit seaward of the north end of St. Catherines Island in Liberty County, Little Egg Island Bar in the mouth of the Altamaha River in Glynn County, and the small marsh island in the mouth of the Satilla River in Camden County.

Beach-nesting birds such as the Wilson’s plover, listed as threatened in Georgia, prefer to nest above the high-tide line on wide, terraced beach flats or in the dunes. They lay eggs on the beach in shallow scrapes in the sand. After hatching, the chicks hide on the beach or in the grass. Disturbance by humans and pets can cause adult birds to abandon the nests and young chicks, exposing them to predators and excessive heat from the sun.

“We are down to only one pair of Wilson’s plovers nesting on Jekyll Island,” Winn said. “The Jekyll Island Authority recognizes the impact of unleashed dogs and feral cats on the island’s native wildlife and has developed an ordinance to ensure the survival of some of it’s rarest birds.”

Jekyll is the only island readily accessible to the public that still has beach-nesting birds for the public to watch and enjoy.

In addition to providing critical nesting habitat, Georgia’s beaches also serve as key wintering and stopover points for seabird and shorebird species such as the red knot, piping plover, whimbrel, black skimmer, American oystercatcher, brown pelican and royal tern. Birds from as far away as the Arctic region come through Georgia as they follow migration routes to and from South America. East Beach near Saint Simons Island becomes a huge sand flat, supporting large numbers of feeding shorebirds during migration and winter months. Owners who allow their dogs to chase shorebirds could be fined for harassing federally protected species like piping plovers.

“Please do not feed feral cats, (and) keep pet cats indoors and leave your dogs at home when you head to the beach,” Winn said. “Your pets and Georgia’s wildlife will be better off as a result.”

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1 comment:

Indian said...

Was Also published at
You are picking up this item with no investigation or critical inquiry.

Is so very fraught with the type of disinformation and conjecture that sets back the cause of environmental progress in the minds of much of the public. The lack of usual census of Wilson's Plover nests on Jekyll Island is most certainly the result of avian species populations cycles on these beaches and other coastal areas. Having lived here on Jekyll Island for more than a decade and having been almost a daily observer of the shoreline, maritime climax forest, marshes and interdunal meadows, it always comes as a discomforting surprise when someone raises the alarm about some ecological niche that is facing imminent danger due to some poorly certified cause.

Your inclusions of excerpts from a DNR spokesman serves some credibility to a portion of proposed argument but does not engage the multiple cause and effect relationships in the complex biological systems that you seek to define

If you consider the fact that in a given year or season the population for all members of the natural biota will experience cyclical maxima and minima yet the population of domestic animals, residents and visitors remain rather constant; it becomes bad science to draw the causal relationships that you propose.

These type of stories and alarms surface periodically and have described the supposed decline of terrapins, turkeys, squirrels, skinks, pelicans, sand dollars and whelks to name just a few of the dire past warnings. These alarms are often generated from the anthropomorphic characteristics that the casual observers apply to native wildlife and which copy-hungry reporters are eager to promote.

These "Boy Crying Wolf" pursuits inures the public to vital and valid environmental needs.

An example of this bad science rational was officially promoted locally for several years.

It was explained that the rather constant bacterial contamination of the water at Saint Andrew's Beach at the south end of the island was due to the the amount of point local, fecal bird contamination. Of little note was the fact that such contamination did not occur at the six other sampling stations with equal bird populations around the island or that the problem disappeared when new beach restrooms replaced the very old outmoded septic tanked ones.

So while domestic animals may bear a certain responsibility for nest attrition again the careful constant observer will note far greater numbers of raccoons, mink, skunk, ghost crabs and other predators that have long been a factor in levels nest depredations that are more causally linked with the cyclical predictor population

Therefore careful reporting should pay heed to the entire environment of the story in preference to simply reciting populist misconceptions and legends.


A Jekyll Island Naturalist