Which birds nest on the beach?
On the east coast of England the two most commonly seen beach-nesting birds are the little tern and the ringed plover. Given their preference for the same type of habitat - sand and shingle beaches - they are often seen breeding in close proximity, with ringed plover usually nesting earlier in the season and often continuing throughout the summer with a second brood.
Whereas little terns tend to nest in colonies - which can be more easily protected by fencing - ringed plovers nest in a linear fashion, strung out along the beach making it almost impossible to provide physical protection. If we’re lucky the ringed plover will locate its nest inside the electric fence of a little tern colony, where these have been provided, but this is not always the case and of course there are many stretches of coastline that do not have protective fencing.
Both the little tern and the ringed plover have seen their populations decline in recent years - both nationally and in East Anglia, where its sand and shingle beaches have provided important breeding habitat for the two birds.
Other ground-nesting birds that breed on the north Norfolk coast include oystercatcher and Avocet and these birds suffer from similar conservation issues to little terns and ringed plovers.
Why are they vulnerable?
Beach-nesting birds are also called ‘ground-nesting birds’ because they do not make elaborate nests which are hidden high up amongst the dense foliage of trees. It’s almost the opposite. Their nest is a simple ‘scrape’ or shallow depression in the ground - in this case the sand or shingle of a beach. Little terns and ringed plovers prefer to nest in an open part of the beach with no vegetation or cover so that they can see predators coming from all angles.
The female with lay the eggs in this scrape and will brood them for up to three weeks. Their eggs are cryptically coloured to help camouflage them when the adult is not covering them. They blend in perfectly with their surroundings and the same goes for their chicks. This is an evolutionary feature of the birds that has allowed them to survive in the past but it is not particularly helpful when they are now sharing their breeding territory with us. Their camouflage makes it extremely difficult to see them on the ground and leaves them very vulnerable to being accidentally trampled by unsuspecting beachgoers and their dogs or by horses or vehicles.
share our coast • ensure their future
Above: ringed plover, adult and chick
Below: adult oystercatcher
The Dutch branch of BirdLife International, Vogelbescherming, has produced a two-minute animated clip that shows the stresses and dangers that beach-nesting species face - these include little terns as well as ringed plovers which are frequently seen nesting together on sandy beaches.
Give beach-nesting birds a chance
beach nesting birds
Learning to share the beach
Human disturbance can have a significant impact on the breeding success of beach-nesting birds. The breeding season, between April and early August, is a particularly vulnerable time for these birds as this coincides with the time when our coasts and beaches are most popular and busy with holiday makers and our animal companions. Disturbed birds may be prevented from settling or if already nesting they will fly away from their nests, neglecting their eggs or chicks.
Disturbance may result in:
birds failing to nest and abandoning the site;
eggs being exposed to hot sun, cold winds or heavy rain for too long and failing to hatch;
chicks dying from adverse weather conditions or lack of food;
exposed eggs and chicks becoming vulnerable to predators such as kestrels, crows and gulls;
accidental trampling of the nest containing eggs or defenceless chicks.
How to recognise a distressed or disturbed bird
Beach-nesting birds view people and our pets as a threat to their nests and young and will react defensively when we get too close.
They will make a loud repeated alarm call - signalling that they are not happy.
They will approach people much closer than would normally be the case - some birds may even dive bomb you. This is a clear message that the bird feels threatened by your presence and that you should retreat.
Ringed plovers will feign injury (a broken wing) in an attempt to distract you from the nest.
Look out for more subtle behaviour such as circling high above.
Can you spot the eggs?
Can you spot the chick?
What you can do to help
Learn to share the coast with our beach-nesting birds.
When visiting the beach, keep your dog on a short lead or under close control. Even well-behaved dogs can be perceived as a threat to adult birds and disturb them. Chicks are defenceless if they are outside a protected area.
Read the signs on the beach warning of the presence of beach-nesting birds and follow any instructions or advice given by rangers or wardens.
Not all beaches will be wardened or have protective fencing. Be alert to the fact that there might be vulnerable chicks and adult beach-nesting birds in the vicinity.
Give a wide berth to young birds and to adults that appear distressed. Move away quickly and quietly and as you leave keep a close eye on the ground for eggs or chicks that may be hidden in your path.
Do not stop for prolonged periods and move on if a bird shows signs of disturbance or distress.
Never intentionally force birds to fly - when birds are chased or disturbed, they are using precious energy that should be used for nesting, foraging and keeping warm.
In general, the closer you stay to the water’s edge and walk on wet or hard sand the less likely you are to disturb breeding birds.
By being responsible beach-users, we can all help beach-nesting birds and their young survive.