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State of the Birds Report

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                      At a Glance

• Coastal areas constitute only 9% of the land area of the U.S., but 25% of all bird species in North America use coastal habitats for some part of their annual cycle. About 83% of coastal lands are privately owned.

• Coastlines provide birds with important nesting, migration stopover, and wintering habitats. Coastal wetlands support millions of migrant and wintering birds.

• Many birds that nest on beaches or use them during migration are of high conservation concern, such as Piping Plover and Least Tern.

• In Louisiana, National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grants and North American Wetlands Conservation Act funds have conserved 110,000 wetland acres and 320,000 acres of shoreline and wetlands (including private lands).

Image: Brant flock by Gerrit Vyn  
Protection of the Virginia barrier islands from encroaching development has allowed them to buffer the Eastern Shore mainland and its coastal communities from storms and, along with protection and restoration of healthy ecosystems, provides resiliency to the anticipated impacts of climate change.
Barry Truitt, Nature Conservancy Chief Conservation Scientist, Virginia Coast Reserve

Coastal Birds on Private Lands

The U.S. has more than 90,000 miles of coastal shoreline, of which 53,677 miles occur along the lower 48 states that border the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. Although the land area within 50 miles of the ocean only represents 9% of total land area of the U.S. (excluding Alaska and Caribbean and Pacific Islands), 36% of the U.S. human population in 2010 lived in this zone. Additionally, more than 180 million Americans make annual visits to coastal areas for recreation and vacation. Ownership of our coastal areas is complex and varies among states. In some states, private ownership begins above the low tide line, and in others it begins above the high tide line.

One-quarter of all bird species in North America use coastal habitats for some part of their annual cycle. Most coastal lands are privately owned (83%), with less than 1% being private protected lands. Twenty-one of the 27 obligate breeding bird species along the coast nest on beaches or rocky shorelines; another 3 species are obligate saltmarsh breeders. Ten of the 11 obligate beach nesting birds are of conservation concern. Most beach-nesting species nest or forage in early-successional habitat, such as bare sand beaches and over-wash zones near mudflats, or sparsely vegetated dunes. Beaches are also used by tens of thousands of migrating and wintering shorebirds, such as the Black-bellied Plover, Red Knot, Sanderling, and Ruddy Turnstone. Coastal marshes provide wintering habitat for millions of waterfowl such as Brant, American Black Duck, and Greater Scaup.

American Oystercatcher by B.N. Singh;

Conservation Successes

The Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act of 1990 directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to engage in interagency wetlands restoration and conservation planning in Louisiana. Additionally, the act established National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grants and allocated a specific proportion of North American Wetlands Conservation Act funds to coastal states. Since 1991, 151 projects in Louisiana have resulted in the creation or restoration of 110,000 wetland acres and the protection of 320,000 acres of shoreline or wetlands. These programs involve private landowners and the public in the decision-making process.

Red Knot by B.N. Singh;

The San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, which includes private landowners and citizens, was established in 2008 to raise and allocate resources for the restoration, enhancement, protection, and enjoyment of wetlands and wildlife habitat in the San Francisco Bay and along its shoreline. The goal is to restore 100,000 acres of tidal wetlands.

In coastal South Carolina, Harbor Island is a small residential community surrounded by natural beauty. Lagoons and barrier beaches provide nesting, feeding, and roosting sites for thousands of wading birds and shorebirds. As the gateway to the Beaufort Barrier Islands Important Bird Area, the Harbor Island Owners Association developed a number of regulations to protect coastal wildlife, such as dog leash laws, restrictions on beach grooming, and restricting vehicles on beaches. The association is a model for citizen-based conservation efforts.

  Coastal Reserves on Private Lands   
  Private protected lands along coastal areas secure important stopover and wintering habitat for migratory birds, as well as breeding habitat for several coastal species. The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve protects nearly 40,000 acres of barrier islands, salt marshes, tidal mudflats, shallow coastal bays, and nearby inland areas—one of the longest stretches of undeveloped Atlantic coastline. Conservation easements on farmlands here preserve natural systems and water quality, as well as the community’s traditions of land stewardship, commercial fisheries, and aquaculture. Working with multiple partners, The Nature Conservancy has also enhanced island beach habitats for nesting colonial waterbirds and shorebirds and restored scrub–shrub and forest habitat for migrant songbirds. Near the Gulf Coast, the National Audubon Society is part of the Mississippi River Alliance, a partnership that works with landowners on sustainable forestry practices for more than 200,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest. Audubon and other partners are providing tools and guidance
to restore this key habitat for Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Parulas. 
  Piping Plover by Matt Bango   

Conservation Challenges

Urbanization, development, and population growth threaten remaining private open space in coastal areas. Extensive coastal engineering for the protection of roads, buildings, or recreational beaches has dramatically altered the characteristics of beaches to the detriment of many coastal birds. The additional construction of structures on some beaches to mitigate potential climate-change effects of sea-level rise and increased storm frequency and intensity could further reduce early-successional habitats for beach-nesting birds. As sea levels rise in response to a warming climate, salt marshes will need to migrate inland, which is often impeded by human development.

Other human activities can also detrimentally affect birds nesting on beaches and rocky shorelines. Vehicle use and other chronic human-caused disturbance, including off-leash dogs, can directly destroy nests and kill young chicks. Chronic disturbances will keep adults off their nests, leaving eggs and chicks vulnerable to the hot sun or exposing them to predators, such as gulls. Exotic predators, including cats, and native predators, such as foxes and raccoons, can wreak havoc on shoreline-nesting birds by chronically disturbing adults or by eating adults, chicks, or eggs. Chronic disturbance can also negatively affect migrating and wintering birds. When roosting or resting birds are disturbed, they will often flee the site at a critical time when they need to conserve energy.

To improve the situation for coastal birds, beach habitat complexity should be maintained, as well as access to different habitat types. Broad over-wash fans provide a natural link between ocean and bayside habitats and should be retained if at all possible. Incentives for private landowners might be developed to minimize construction in coastal areas prone to alteration. Disturbance at nesting and roosting sites should be minimized by fencing off nesting areas, maintaining or creating isolated high tide roosts, invoking controls on off-leash pets at specific sites or times of the year, and considering wildlife needs when planning beach engineering projects. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission develops cooperative agreements with landowners to protect bird nesting and foraging sites. Communication to beach users on balancing human and wildlife use is crucial when implementing these management measures. Saltmarsh migration also needs to be considered in coastal zone management plans. 


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