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State of the Birds Report

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Public Coastal Areas Support Important Nesting, Feeding, and Stopover Habitat for Birds


• Coastal habitats are essential to shorebirds as they migrate between wintering and breeding grounds. Most important stopover sites are publicly owned.

• The entire global populations of Saltmarsh and Seaside sparrows are dependent on healthy U.S. coastal salt marshes that need public management.

• Federal and state lands include 53% of sites along the Atlantic Coast that support wintering and migrant Red Knots, a rapidly declining species.

• All coastal inshore waters are publicly owned. They are important
foraging and resting areas for wintering birds such as Black Scoters, Common Eiders, Northern Gannets, and Red-throated Loons.

Image: Gulf Coast salt marsh by Gerrit Vyn.  
Public management is critical on coastal lands and waters
providing essential habitat for 173 bird species.

Coastal Birds on Public Lands and Waters

Although coastal areas occupy less than 10% of our nation’s land area, 173 bird species rely on these key habitats, including beaches, intertidal mudflats, estuaries, salt marshes, mangroves, and coastal inshore waters. Half of all coastally migrating shorebirds have declined, indicating stress in coastal habitats. Publicly owned coastal areas are managed primarily by the states, BLM, USFWS, NPS, and DoD. Examples of federally managed coastal areas include National Wildlife Refuges, National Seashores, and National Monuments.

Open beach and intertidal mudflats are critical for migrating and wintering shorebirds such as Red Knot, Sanderling, and Western Sandpiper. Of 34 sites that support more than 100,000 shorebirds during spring or fall migration, 25 (74%) are coastal. Ownership of important shorebird stopover sites ranges from virtually 100% public
(e.g., Copper River Delta, Alaska; Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina) to a mix involving federal, state, and private conservation organizations, and private citizens (e.g., Delaware Bay; Laguna Madre, Texas).

Beaches are important for nesting birds such as Gull-billed Tern and endangered Piping Plover, Snowy Plover, and Least Tern.

Clapper Rail by Gerrit Vyn

Salt marsh habitat is crucial to species such as the Saltmarsh Sparrow, Black Rail, Seaside Sparrow, and endangered populations of Clapper Rail. Activities that affect estuarine wetlands and salt marsh are regulated by federal and state agencies.

Rocky shorelines are especially important for breeding Black Oystercatcher and wintering Surfbird and Rock Sandpiper. Major threats include coastal development and increased human disturbance and shoreline contamination from oil spills.

Most of the small amount of U.S. mangrove habitat is in Florida, more than 80% of which is publicly owned. Mangroves provide important breeding habitat for White-crowned Pigeon, Black-whiskered Vireo, and other tropical species such as the Mangrove Cuckoo. Sensitive to habitat fragmentation, Mangrove Cuckoos depend on public lands that provide sanctuary for part of the population in large tracts of mangrove forests, including Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Preserve, and the National Wildlife Refuges of the Florida Keys.

Coastal inshore waters are important foraging and resting areas for wintering waterbirds such as Black Scoter, Common Eider, Northern Gannet, and Red-throated Loon. All coastal waters are publicly owned. More than 140 federal laws and more than 20 entities are associated with coastal waters and ocean management within the federal government.

States have management responsibility for most activities within three nautical miles from the coastline (except in the Gulf of Mexico, where the jurisdictions of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas extend seaward nine nautical miles).

Some coastal areas are designated as marine protected areas (MPAs), which include land and water, and can thus provide additional protection for coastal resources within the MPA boundary. (Read more about MPAs.)

Dunlin by Gerrit Vyn
Conservation Successes


Intensive management of important coastal habitat has proven beneficial to several species. The breeding success of birds such as the Least Tern and Piping Plover increased in response to management focusing on nest protection. 

About three-quarters of threatened U.S. Atlantic Coast Piping Plovers nest on publicly managed beaches. Labor-intensive management by a network of cooperators minimizes threats from habitat loss, beach recreation, and predation. 

With improved nesting success and habitat protection, the U.S. Atlantic population of Piping Plovers has more than doubled in the last 20 years. Examples on federal lands include growth from 15 to 85 pairs at the Cape Cod National Seashore and from 5 to 32 pairs at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts, and from 19 to 45 pairs at the Sandy Hook Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey. 

Black Brant and other sea ducks have benefited from the establishment of state-managed Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Washington. This MPA protects formerly privately owned tidelands from development and has one of the nation's largest contiguous eelgrass beds. The 11,000-acre reserve provides a significant wintering and migratory stopover area for waterfowl. 

Conservation Challenges

Major threats to coastal birds include habitat loss and degradation, human disturbance, and predators. Public recreation, development interests, and wildlife compete for beaches. Public ownership of beaches varies among states. In most states, all land below the mean high tide line belongs to the state, and citizens have the right to unrestricted access. Primary threats to birds on beaches include human-caused disturbance, increased predators, sea-level rise, and habitat loss. Many states allow off-road vehicles (ORVs) or unrestricted public access with pets such as dogs and cats. ORVs can be highly disturbing to nesting or feeding shorebirds. Shorebird numbers and foraging time have been observed to decrease on beaches with heavy ORV use. Although the majority of beaches and intertidal zones are publicly owned, management of these sites is essential to bird conservation. 

Threats to salt marsh habitat include loss and degradation of habitat through coastal development or filling, draining, diking, and pollution, all of which continue to impact the declining Saltmarsh Sparrow. The primary threat to mangrove habitat in Florida is the continued clear-cutting for crops such as sugarcane, affecting White-crowned Pigeons, which have a restricted range and steeply declining populations. 

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010
reminds us of the fragility of coastal
ecosystems, and that even protection
of nesting colonies on state and federal
lands may not necessarily safeguard
birds, such as this Brown Pelican, from
the effects of large-scale environmental
catastrophes. Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Although our coastal waters and oceans are public, private entities can acquire proprietary rights for oil, natural gas, sand, gravel, salt, and utility transmission lines. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has active
oil and gas leases that cover millions of acres of oceanic waters; states regulate these activities in nearshore coastal waters. In addition, new leasing programs are currently being considered for renewable energy. All of these activities provide additional threats for coastal and ocean birds from oil spills and collisions with alternative energy facilities or offshore oil platforms.

Climate change and sea level rise are expected to have a major impact on all coastal habitats, primarily through habitat loss (e.g., flooding of salt marshes, intertidal areas, and rocky shorelines, and increased coastal erosion).


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