Beaches are dynamic places that are constantly changing with the tides, weather and seasons. One lovely part of beaches are the birds, who were always a constant presence on the shores I grew up on. Pelicans, kits, eagles, gulls, and oystercatchers all populate the sands and I’ve always loved watching them fly and fish and forage. Until recently though, I’d been less thoughtful about the vulnerability of the nesting habits of the shorebirds that live on the sands, which now feels a huge oversight in my own ecological knowledge. These often tiny birds with their hard to spot nests and eggs are a part of the beach that is easy to miss when you’re not paying attention to them.
This week, on Saltwater Library, I speak with Dr Eric Woehler (OAM), an ecologist specialising in marine and shorebirds. I met Eric at an Australian Coastal Society, Coast to Coast conference in 2021, where I heard him present on the various threats posed to shorebirds by human recreation and leisure at the beach. His work got me thinking about how things we think of as low impact – beach walks, sunbathing, and letting our dogs run around on the sand – can actually have big ecological impacts in ways that can be hard for us to see. Even seemingly positive practices, like beach clean-ups, can be damaging if they’re organised during nesting seasons.
In this discussion, Eric explains how those of us who use beaches for sport, physical activities and leisure impact shorebird nesting habitats, and how we can reduce these impacts. Most importantly, he encourages us to stop viewing beaches as a resource for our pleasure and to recognise beaches as multispecies habitats; to understand ourselves as visitors to these places that are full time homes for all kinds of animals and plants.
Spending time at the beach is good for people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. But Eric reminds us that beach are a habitat and they’re not just there for human use. Developing a better understanding of the nesting and breeding seasons of shorebirds and other beach critters, and a willingness to adapt our own leisure to take better care of them, can contribute to the health and wellbeing of beaches in return.
Listen to our conversation about shorebirds and the marvel of their migrations, resilience and fierce parenting on Saltwater Library.
Information and Resources:
- Birdlife Tasmania
- Birdlife Australia
- Birdlife Australia shorebird resources,
- ‘How 4WD users can share the shore’, NSW Department of Planning and Environment
- ‘Contested spaces: saving nature when our beaches have gone to the dogs‘, The Conversation
- Jake Taylor-Bruce spent six months working as warden on Foulney Island nature reserve (UK), protecting and monitoring shorebirds during the breeding season through heightened tourist visits during the first year of the pandemic (link is to a short video).
Further reading on Eric Woehler’s research:
- Seabird research in the Tasman and Coral Seas for Schmidt Ocean Institute on the RV Falkor
- ‘Recording biodiversity above ocean waves’ on the RV Investigator for CSIRO
- ‘Distribution and abundance of seabirds’, a multi-year project with CSIRO
Research programs and vessels (because I really love the ships):
- Australian Antarctic Program
- RSV Aurora Australis (Australian Antarctic program 1989-2020)
- RV Investigator (CSIRO)
- RSV Nuyina (Australian Antarctic Division)
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