Coastal Shorebirds

Coastal Shorebirds

The shorebirds that we see along the New Hampshire seacoast are travelling between northern breeding areas and tropical wintering ones. Only four species actually breed along our coast (Piping Plover, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, and Willet), and the rest are here for one reason: to feed. They are eating to build up fat reserves to fuel the next leg of migration, which might entail a flight of hundreds of miles. NH Audubon last looked at shorebird use of the coast in 2006-07, and much can happen in over a decade. Through a combination of eBird data and standardized surveys, we revisited this area in 2018-19 to see what might have changed. A shift in site use may indicate that shorebirds are being driven from prime foraging or roosting locations by disturbance or other threats in our narrow coastal zone.

The key area for foraging shorebirds in New Hampshire remains the tidal flats of the Hampton-Seabrook Estuary, where hundreds may congregate at low tide. As these flats are inundated, the birds shift elsewhere, with sites including Meadow Pond in Hampton and areas of seaweed (aka “wrack”) deposited on beaches the length of the coast. At the highest tides, shorebirds need a place to rest until they are able to forage again, and these roost sites are just as important as feeding areas. Some locations have shifted dramatically since our previous study, with pools on the periphery of the Hampton-Seabrook estuary that are no longer used. Instead, a significant roost has formed on a cobble beach at the north end of Hampton, where hundreds of birds pack into a narrow strip of dry ground at high tide.

Anything that compromises shorebirds’ ability to feed or causes them to waste energy may compromise migration. In this light, there is increasing concern about threats that include loss of habitat and repeated flushing by people, vehicles, or unleashed dogs. Ideally, birds can rest at their roosts undisturbed, but increasing human presence often means they are flushed more regularly, resulting in their expending some of their stored energy reserves. At the same time, changes to the coastal landscape (e.g., development and sea-level rise) can degrade roost sites and force birds to less suitable locations where they may be subject to more frequent disturbance. Clearing of wrack from beaches is another threat listed for shorebirds in the North Atlantic, since it deprives them of a valuable food source.

Shorebird surveys are just one aspect of this project. If we want to ensure that the birds passing through New Hampshire each spring and fall can successfully complete their migratory journeys, we also need to educate people in coastal communities about their conservation. The first step in this process occurred in June of 2019, when I presented a talk at the “Beaches Conference” in Kittery, Maine. This is an annual venue where coastal stakeholders come together to update one another on the status of our beaches and the threats they face. More outreach will occur once all the data are collected and analyzed.Funding for shorebird conservation comes from grants from the Fuller Foundation and the Blake-Nuttall Fund of the Nuttall Ornithological Club.

Project Leader: Pam Hunt

Photos, from the top: Least Tern and chick by Len Medlock, Semipalmated Plover by Pam Hunt.

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