Beach-goers are disturbing nesting white-fronted plovers


Human population densities are often the greatest in coastal areas and around wetlands. As a result. many coastal and water birds face significant threats from habitat disturbance. Some species appear to be able to tolerate disturbance, whereas others are more sensitive and are decreasing in numbers.

The Fitz Patrick Institute of African Ornithology in partnership with the Nature’s Valley Trust (NVT) has been investigating the influence of human beach-use disturbance on shorebirds in the Garden Route National Park. The research has helped devise practical methods to minimise the impacts of tourism on coastal­breeding shorebirds.

White-fronted plover monitoring in Plettenberg Bay

White-fronted plovers have been monitored along the coast around Plettenberg Bay for three breeding seasons in succession since 2014. The intention was to evaluate how plover breeding behaviour differed between peaceful. relatively undisturbed sites and busy, heavily used beaches.

Overall, their breeding success is low, with only one in 1 on 10 nests successfully fledging their chicks. Incubating plovers respond to someone approaching from up to 50m away and leave their nests when the person comes within 30m. They stay away from the nest until the person has moved at least the same distance past it. This has a severe impact on their breeding success. Trials with dummy eggs show that eggs left unattended can reach a potentially lethal 45° C in less than 15 minutes during summer midday temperatures.

white-fronted plover nest and eggs Plettenberg Bay

The project initiated an intervention and awareness programme during 2016 to help mitigate human disturbance on the plovers. Information boards highlighting conservation concerns and responsible beach use have been installed at beach entrances. Signage is placed around white-fronted plover nests to create awareness of ground-nesting shorebirds and to encourage beach users to avoid active breeding areas. The programme has had positive results. On the two beaches at Nature’s Valley where information boards. nesting area signs. brochures and active public engagement occurred, breeding success almost doubled from 8.6% to 15.2%. However. the increase at Plettenberg Bay’s Lookout Beach was more modest. from l 0.6% to 12.7%. It is hoped that strategic beach zoning for dogs off leashes. on a leash. or no dogs allowed, will further increase breeding success rates.

Written by Selena Flores, PhD student, FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. 

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