Island shorebirds need help

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Climate change, plastic pollution and human activities are disrupting the peace of shorebirds on the islands.

After piping plovers were added to the endangered species list in 1986, Mass Audubon started the Coastal Waterbird Program that same year to conserve bird populations. The program is designed to monitor and protect shorebirds and their habitats. According to the Mass Audubon website, the program protects 140 miles of Massachusetts coastline and manages 20 to 50 percent of the state’s populations of American oystercatchers, piping plovers and lesser terns. Of these shorebirds, piping plovers are the only species whose current conservation status is threatened at both state and national levels.

According to a press release, the number of piping plovers in Massachusetts increased from 476 pairs in 1985 to 1,818 pairs in 2019. However, Sam Kefferstan, director of Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries and responsible for the Coastal Waterbird Program for the Islands , said it was insufficient. The Audubon mass target of 2000 pairs.

“We are certainly making progress in their recovery, but we haven’t quite hit the recovery target,” Kefferstan said. “While this is a conservation success story, there are certainly concerns ahead, such as climate change and pollution, that seem to hamper the potential to remove these species from the list of species in the future. endangered and threatened. “

According to the State of the Birds 2017 report by Mass Audubon, rising sea levels, rising sea surface temperatures and more severe storms are among the threats to shorebirds and their habitats. nesting will face in the years to come. Kefferston said shorebirds nest just a few feet from the high tide line, so changes in the environment can have “eye-catching” effects. The nests of a thriving tern colony and its eggs at Tisbury Great Pond in West Tisbury were recently found flooded in about an inch of water. Many shorebird nests on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have been destroyed by flooding. Kefferston said losses from floods like this will increase in the near future. In addition, nesting areas are expected to decrease due to sea level rise and beach erosion.
Human activity on beaches can also affect the growth of shorebird chicks, especially piping plovers. Piping plovers have a more laissez-faire parenting style than songbirds, such as robins. Although the piping plover’s parents are nearby, it is the chicks’ responsibility to feed and find insects to eat in the intertidal areas. Piping plover chicks may travel half a mile in their first 24 hours of life in an effort to double their weight with food.

“For them, every moment they don’t eat matters. Every move they make means growth potential that is lost, ”Kefferstan said. “If they spend this energy hiding from a raging pet, beach goer, or kite, that loss of energy translates into developing the ability to fly in 35 days.” , instead of 28. This week makes a big difference in terms of their survival. “

Kefferstan said it’s usually a “death by a thousand cuts”, rather than a single factor, that kills unlucky birds.

A big man-made problem is plastic pollution and waste. Shorebird Supervisor Emily Mello recently discovered a piping plover hatchling choking on nylon balloon string, most likely mistaking it for a worm. Kefferstan said this chick was lucky enough to pull the string through his system, but many others weren’t so lucky. The chick was able to take flight, but it fell behind its siblings and is now more vulnerable to predators such as seagulls and crows.

Kefferstan said it was “heartbreaking” for Mello, as monitors are only allowed to watch the birds without intervening. Saving a chick is an option of last resort, Kefferstan says, as parents are usually the ones who can best take care of them. Kefferstan said the monitors work closely with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program, and that the state ultimately decides whether a rescue was the right decision.

“You can imagine that there are a lot of risks in doing that [the rescue], especially since something of this magnitude [ingested nylon balloon string], we have to get the plover off the island, ”Kefferstan said. “That time adds up, and this is the time when they’re not on the beach doing what they should be.”

Kefferstan hopes the growing awareness of the human damage that can occur will strengthen efforts to conserve threatened and endangered species. Tackling climate change is a community effort, but Kefferstan said there are things in people’s daily lives that they can do to lessen the damage to shorebirds. These include simple acts, such as picking up after oneself and putting garbage and recyclables in the appropriate bins. “People, on the whole, want to help, but just don’t know how,” Kefferstan said.

Kefferstan also encourages people to join volunteer programs to help protect the environment and the creatures in it. One example he gave was the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, where a group of volunteers is being formed to monitor and protect threatened and endangered species, like the piping plover. Kefferstant said volunteers will learn the ropes and be put to work quickly. Those interested in joining can contact Kefferstan at [email protected] for more information.


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