Wednesday, 29 March 2023
This story ran in our March 2023 issue. To receive our Australian BirdLife magazine, become a member today.
When temperatures soar across the country, people flock to Australia’s beaches to beat the heat. They come by car and on foot, with dogs and boats and jet skis in tow. Some even arrive on horseback. Spanning thousands of kilometres of coastline, Australia boasts more than 10,000 beaches—and world-class ones, too. Our beaches and surf are both a huge tourism drawcard and an integral part of the Australian identity, culture and tradition—but while undeniable in their value to tourism and recreation, our beaches are so much more than a travel destination.
Today, most people live near the coast in Australia. In fact, more than 87 per cent of us live within just 50 kilometres of the coastline. That’s over 22 million people who now call the coast home—and that number continues to grow. And the more popular our beaches are, the more pressure they’re under.
The 2021 State of the Environment Report—Australia’s environmental report card released every five years—found that overall, Australia’s beaches and shorelines were in poor condition and are continuing to deteriorate. And overwhelmingly, human pressures and climate change are driving this destruction
To some, our beaches represent little more than a playground that we’re free to explore and enjoy and, in some unfortunate cases, to destroy. Images of shorelines littered with glass and rubbish, of trampled dunes and birds crushed by cars or attacked by dogs—these are the photos that show a darker side to Australian beach culture, but never make it to billboards or glossy travel magazine spreads.
The declining health of our beaches and shorelines is bad news for beach-users everywhere, but our beaches are not ours alone. We share our shores with extraordinary and fragile marine and coastal biodiversity. More than half of all our threatened species are found in Australia’s coastal zone, and many are found nowhere else in the world. These species need our awareness, care and protection, and are an important reminder that we, as beach-users, should be beach custodians too.
Every year, millions of migratory birds visit Australia, including at least 37 migratory species of shorebirds. Some travel from as far as Alaska and Siberia, tracing invisible paths in the sky known as flyways. Once here, they feed and rest on our shores as they prepare for the long journey back to their northern hemisphere breeding grounds. But it’s no coincidence that migratory shorebirds are also some of the world’s most threatened groups of birds.
Over half of the migratory shorebirds that visit Australia are experiencing population declines—including the Critically Endangered Eastern Curlew, whose global population has plummeted by up to 80 per cent in the past 30 years alone
Habitat loss and degradation remain the greatest immediate threats to migratory shorebirds in the East Asian–Australasian Flyway today, but human disturbance still poses a significant danger to migratory shorebirds and their habitats. In 2021, twenty Red-necked Stints—the smallest of Australia’s migratory shorebird species—were run over and killed by a single vehicle speeding along the sand on Kangaroo Island’s Brownlow Beach. Beaches are critical breeding and feeding habitats for resident and migratory shorebirds like the Hooded Plover, listed as Vulnerable, whose breeding season coincides with peak tourist season.
Following a sharp decline in Hooded Plover numbers, largely as a result of human disturbance and recreational pressures on beaches, BirdLife Australia began the Beach-nesting Birds Program in 2006. Along with monitoring, predator control and protection of specific sites during breeding season, the program aimed to raise awareness among beach-goers about the impact of their presence on the tiny birds. Now, around 900 sites are intensively monitored throughout the breeding season, and the number of young hatching at these sites has tripled.
But there’s still a long way to go. Educating and engaging beach-goers and the local community is pivotal to protecting our beach-nesting birds, and with the number of visitors increasing every year, keeping people informed is an ongoing project. When you head to the beach, keep the following in mind, and spread the word to as many people as you can.
Read on, or click here to follow our 6 key steps to become a bird-friendly beach-goer all year round.
Over spring and summer, shorebirds like Hooded Plovers, oystercatchers and Beach Stone-curlews lay their eggs directly onto the exposed sand of Australia’s ocean beaches. Once they hatch, these chicks roam the beach while learning to feed and fly. While their parents are close by, they can be hard to spot since their plumage is well-camouflaged to their coastal habitat. Sometimes, well-meaning beach-users will find a chick and, assuming it’s been abandoned, will try to rescue it without realising that its parents are nearby. The longer a chick is separated from its parents, the less likely it is to survive, so unless it’s clearly injured, it’s best to leave lone chicks alone. Getting too close to nesting shorebirds can also draw them away from their eggs and chicks, making them more vulnerable to predation and overheating.
Even the best-behaved dogs endanger beach-nesting birds and their eggs and chicks. Disturbance and predation by unleashed dogs is a significant threat to nesting shorebirds, and during breeding season, off-leash dogs can and do easily kill, injure or frighten shorebirds away from their nests or chicks. If you prefer to enjoy the beach with a four-legged friend by your side, please keep them on a leash at all times, unless in a designated off-leash area—and stick to dog-friendly beaches and follow any seasonal dog regulations that are in place. Don’t let your dog chase flocks of roosting shorebirds or wander or scavenge above the high-tide line, where it may crush eggs or kill chicks.
Sand dunes are a vital part of our beaches and coastline, acting as a natural buffer against destructive storms, wind, waves and erosion. Dune systems are also important habitat for coastal species, including shorebirds that nest, roost and shelter in the dunes. Seabirds like Short-tailed Shearwaters and Little Penguins also build their fragile burrows in sand dunes, which can easily collapse if disturbed. To protect dunes and the birds that rely on them, please tread lightly—avoid trampling dunes or shorebird nests by sticking to paths and on the wet sand below the high-tide line. Look out for any fences or shelters protecting beach-nesting birds and follow any signage or official directions and advice.
In states like South Australia, uncontrolled beach driving is damaging fragile coastal environments and destroying critical shorebird habitat, turning once pristine beaches into rutted racetracks. Sadly, it’s nesting and roosting shorebirds and their eggs and chicks that are paying the price. In Western Australia, two Fairy Tern colonies were wiped out by 4WDs on beaches over the 2020–21 season alone, and earlier this year, a Hooded Plover chick was run down by a vehicle being driven illegally on a beach in Victoria’s South West. Meanwhile, reckless drivers and dangerous legal speed limits endanger the lives of beach-goers, too.
Four-wheel driving on beaches is popular, and many drivers are simply unaware of the effect it has on birds and the coastal ecosystem. Over time, too, vehicles have become bigger, more powerful and capable of more damage, as well as being able to access more ‘off-road’ areas. Compounding this is the sheer number of vehicles—where once the moderate traffic might have allowed some areas to recover in between, more vehicles than ever now invade the beaches for more of the year, and the results can be disastrous.
Regulations on beach driving vary from state to state, with some requiring a permit, and most restricting driving to designated beaches. While in Victoria, off-road access to public coastal land and beaches is prohibited and those found driving on beaches have been successfully prosecuted, in South Australia, the situation is very different. Birds SA, an affiliate of BirdLife Australia, has been raising concerns about the impact of beach-driving on threatened birds for decades, and made a detailed submission to the 2019 Inquiry into Offroad Vehicles. The Recommendations of the Inquiry clearly identified the problems for coastal environments and beach-nesting birds with cars on beaches, but the State Government has yet to implement any of them.
That’s why BirdLife Australia and Birds SA are calling on the State Government to introduce legislation and better regulate beach driving in South Australia. Among the changes urgently needed are a permit system, like that which operates in Queensland and NSW, which would allow instruction and information to be provided to potential beach-drivers, increased public awareness, and the closure of beaches to cars during peak breeding times or in areas critical to threatened birds.
When our Beach-nesting Birds Program began, the Victorian population of Hooded Plovers was as low as 500, and declining. With the invaluable work of our volunteers, we’ve managed to arrest that decline, and help a lot of other beach-nesting birds too
Engaging beach-goers and teaching people about the often simple changes they can make to protect the birds at breeding times has made a big difference at many sites. The need to work and play in harmony with our environment is a message we must continue to spread, and effective regulations, like those so sorely needed in South Australia, are an important part of this. But engaging, educating and changing our own behaviour is a powerful way to convince more people of the responsibility—and the privilege—of sharing our shores with the birds that call them home.
On 26 January this year, Aldinga Beach, about 50 kilometers south of Adelaide on the Onkapringa coast, was swarming with people. It was a warm and sunny day, and literally thousands of cars were driving and parking along the beach, just metres from a roped-off nesting area where two Hooded Plover eggs lay in the sand. While the beachgoers enjoyed their day in the sun, the Hooded Plover parents diligently shared the incubation duties for their nest.
A few weeks later, one of the eggs hatched, and the parents carefully escorted their youngster approximately one kilometre north to the Vehicle Exclusion zone—a lot of steps for a tiny Hoodie chick, and unfortunately for the chick, a case of ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’. While this area is free of cars, it is a dedicated ‘offleash’ exercise beach for dogs. But luckily for this chick and its parents, they have friends. ‘Hoodies Down South’ is a group of volunteers who monitor Hooded Plovers and their nests and chicks on Adelaide’s Southern Beaches, and is part of BirdLife Australia’s Beach-nesting Birds program. Since the chick—which they have dubbed ‘Larry’—hatched, they have kept up a warden schedule throughout the daylight hours at the site, ensuring that Larry and his parents are protected. Without their dedication, this tiny chick wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Kerri Bartley, one of BirdLife Australia’s Sharing our Shores with Coastal Wildlife Coordinators, says Larry’s hatching is already a rare event in the area. “There hasn’t been any Hooded Plover breeding success on the ‘vehicle allowed’ Onkaparinga beaches since the Hooded Plover Program commenced in 2009! The first season, one chick fledged. In the 2017–18 season, one chick reached 35 days old but went missing the next day and had never been observed officially flying.” “So if Larry makes it through to flying it will be record-breaking for this stretch of coastline.”
Volunteers Linda and Dudley Corbett maintain a Facebook page with updates on the birds and images taken by registered volunteers from a safe distance. According to his watchers, Larry is “an active little chap” who is “keeping his parents on their toes”. At the time of writing, they are counting down to Larry’s fledging date in mid-March, and keeping a close watch on his section of beach.
Fingers crossed for a successful fledging, and a heartfelt thanks to all the volunteers, including Sue and Ash Read, Linda and Dudley Corbett, and Diane Randall, who pledge their time to protect these birds and educate the public about the need to be mindful of beach-nesting birds.
Volunteering with BirdLife Australia’s Beach-nesting Birds or Migratory Shorebirds teams is a great way to support community conservation efforts and help protect and better understand our threatened shorebirds and seabirds.
You choose which level of commitment works for you, whether it’s once a week or an annual population count—and we welcome volunteers of all ages and experiences. You can volunteer in breeding site protection, shorebird education and engagement and more.
This story originally ran in our March 2023 issue. To receive our Australian BirdLife magazine, become a member today.
Five Australian shorebirds, and many species of seabirds, rely on coastal habitats for nesting. Loss of coastal habitats and recreational pressures are taking a devastating toll.
Killed by illegal vehicle on beach
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