Abby Sterling

Director, Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative

Spring in coastal Georgia is beautiful, with longer days and warm temperatures that hint at the coming heat of summer. The idyllic and peaceful conditions can deceptive because, for shorebirds, this season is the height of activity.

Wilson’s Plover. Credit: Abby Sterling.

Along the coast of the Georgia Bight, from northeast Florida to South Carolina, flocks of migratory shorebirds are busy chasing the tide, feeding on spawning horseshoe crab eggs and surf clams, and building energy stores to travel to the Arctic. Birds are molting from winter plumage into their colorful breeding plumage – Red Knots are red instead of gray, and Black-bellied Plovers really have black bellies. Amidst the scurry of feeding frenzies, local nesting birds like American Oystercatchers and Wilson’s Plovers defend territories and protect their nests, incubating eggs out on open beaches and the shell rakes that edge the salt marshes.

These sights inspire awe among locals and visitors alike, but many of these spectacular places are relatively remote and only accessible by boat. The dynamic nature of our coastline can make navigation difficult, so one of the primary ways for visitors to access them is through ecotourism guides or outfits. Tourism is an important component of the local economy, and ecotourism thrives in Georgia with so much natural beauty. However, it is unfortunately possible to love a place to death.

Disturbance at remote places, where shorebirds are refueling during migration or nesting and raising chicks, can negatively affect birds. If people use places like the inlets where shorebirds tend to congregate, they become “functionally unavailable.” This means that even if they hold abundant food resources or appear to be high-quality habitat, shorebirds will not be able to use them. When people visit these remote places, they scare these birds from their roosts causing them to burn the valuable energy they need to carry them all the way to Arctic nesting grounds. When dogs are brought to these sites with their owners, nesting birds can be frightened from their nests, causing eggs or chicks to be exposed to predators or overheating.

Groups of ecotourism guides gathered to talk about shorebirds and learn the basics of shorebird identification.