Outdoors: Beach goers can enjoy the surf without disturbing birds

A common tern carries a fish to its young in the dune.
A common tern carries a fish to its young in the dune. For the Centre Daily Times

Thousands of central Pennsylvanians will head to the beach this summer to fish, swim or just play in the sand. Popular spots include the New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia and Carolina coasts. Many of these same beaches are just recovering from winter storms that ravaged some coastal areas. Although you might not notice the difference, tons of sand have been pumped onto the beaches and bulldozers have re-contoured the sand since the storms. The dunes in many areas have been planted with beach grasses.

I visited a few of those beaches in late March. I returned from the Delaware coast again a few days ago. Much improvement has taken place since early spring. However, in places such as Bethany Beach, Del., reconstruction is continuing as some of the handicapped ocean access areas still need to be re-established.

If you are vacationing at the beach this summer, you should be aware that humans will not be the only creatures hoping to make their claim to a square of warm sand. Many birds have already staked out their own space on the beach, choosing nesting sites on the sand and hoping to raise their young along the shoreline, in the dunes, and in nearby marshy areas.

In most cases, the shore birds nest away from the water, therefore normal beach activities are fine. Many areas have signs reminding beach-goers to stay off of the dunes and other nesting areas. However, young children cannot always read the signs, and it is up to their parents to let them know the reasons that dunes are off limits. The American Bird Conservancy asks that beachgoers “fish, swim and play from 50 yards away.”

“Many beach-nesting bird species, like least tern and black skimmer, have declined in population and really need our help,” said Kacy Ray, Conservation Program Manager for the Conservancy’s Gulf Coastal Program.

Eggs and chicks risk being trampled or run over by vehicles, and young birds can be killed by predators when they are flushed from their nests or foraging areas.

“When people get too close to the birds, it scares them away from their nests or away from their young,” Ray explained. “It can distract them from taking care of eggs and chicks, leaving young birds vulnerable to hot sun and predators. Being disturbed may even cause parent birds to abandon their nests altogether.”

Beach-nesting birds, such as the least tern, lay their eggs directly in the sand. To make matters more difficult for well-meaning humans, those eggs are camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings.

Beachgoers often cannot tell the difference between a bird that is simply sitting on the sand and one that is tending eggs, a nest or baby birds. But certain signals and behaviors indicate the presence of nesting birds.

“You know you’ve entered a nesting area when large groups or individual birds vocalize loudly, dive-bomb your head or feign injury to lead you away from their nests,” Ray pointed out. “If this happens, back away and share the beach so the birds can successfully rear their young.”

Some species of ground nesting shorebirds seek what they think is the security of a small island for nesting. Storms can make this choice precarious at best, but unthinking boaters and jet-ski users easily disturb them. Even a kayaker can chase birds from their nests.

The sight and sound of gulls is ubiquitous with the sand and waves and are a welcome part of the beach experience for vacationers. However, gulls are predators that readily feed on the eggs and chicks of other species. Although gulls themselves are not endangered, some of the species on which they prey are threatened.

Two summers ago, I watched common terns in a battle with gulls. One tern parent guarded the young, while the other parent attempted to catch and bring small fish to feed them. Catching the fish did not seem to be a problem for the terns, however successfully delivering it to one of their hungry fledglings was another matter. Even though the smaller terns were faster and more maneuverable, rarely did a fish make it into the mouths of their young. There were just too many of the larger laughing gulls attempting to steal a free meal.

When beachgoers attract gulls by feeding them near nesting areas, the problem is only compounded. Enjoy the gulls, but consider the other birds as well. When gulls are accustomed to accepting human handouts, they can become a nuisance.

Getting to know a few of the shorebirds can also make your time at the beach more enjoyable.

Federally threatened piping plovers can be found on Atlantic Coast beaches extending from North Carolina to Maine. They are especially concentrated along the northeastern coast, notably along the beaches of Long Island, N.Y., and the southern Delmarva Peninsula. Other species you might encounter include the least, common, and Forster’s terns, the black skimmer, American oystercatcher and Wilson’s plover.

Black skimmers, for example, are not federally listed as threatened or endangered, but the species appears on the lists of several states. It is considered endangered in New Jersey and is identified as a species of special concern in North Carolina and Florida.

Although this column is about the beach, the lessons learned can be applied to birds right here at home — whether it is a robin nesting in a shrub beside your house or a killdeer nesting in a local parking lot. Enjoy your time at the beach this summer, but remember — beach-nesting birds need their “vacation time,” too.

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at