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Shorebirds Losing Footing Along Coastline

Floodlights and people taking over wildlife habitat

The distinctive Wandering Tattler. Photo by John Avise.

Shorebirds are getting edged out of their habitat by humans along Laguna’s coastline, according to an on-going study by the Laguna Ocean Foundation.

Ed Almanza, foundation vice-chairman and a geographer interested in conservation biology, said a survey conducted at the height of winter feeding at Table Rock cove in South Laguna showed “nada, nil, zero, no birds at all.”  People, he said, numbered more than 200.  “So, there’s this habitat that’s normally used by birds and now it’s being used by people,” he said, all year round, all hours of the day and night.

“There’s this timeshare program that’s an equilibrium between wildlife and humans and the humans are outpacing that equilibrium,” Almanza told the City Council recently.  “People are taking more of the time.”

Over the last 200 years, California lost 95 percent of its wetlands, said Nils Warnock, Ph.D., of Anchorage, executive director of Audubon Alaska, who has written extensively on the ecology of shorebirds. “That’s a lot of wetlands to lose. That’s a lot of birds and other wildlife that relied on that,” he commented.

Warnock said evidence indicates that development is crimping the free movement of coastal wildlife, where birds as well as marine mammals are piling up on each other.  “Overall, they have fewer places to go,” he said.  “Rarely do we create new habitat. And in some parts of the world, we’re seeing declines in population.”

Even so, the foundation’s surveys  and its conclusions regarding the impact of people and night-lighting on shorebird habitat have yet to undergo peer review. Warnock, though, appreciates LOF’s initiative in starting the count. “It will be good information to have when you do want to evaluate conservation concerns,” he said.

The distinctive Black oystercatcher. Photo by John Avise.

Other studies show that many shorebird species on the west coast are encountering hard times, Warnock said. “Look at western snowy plovers,” he cited, a threatened species on California beaches where sunbathers intrude on their nests in open sand.

At Treasure Island below the Montage resort, easier public access allows many more beachgoers to inspect its rocky tide pools, particularly at low tide.  A portion of a reef that juts above the waterline south of the tide pools is where shorebirds now land.  “You can often see hundreds of birds sitting there because people cannot get there,” Almanza said.

The habitat shared by birds and beachgoers worked well when shorebirds flew to Alaska to feed in the summertime as tourists took over the beaches. “What we’ve seen at Treasure Island is that people are there any time the sun is out,” he said, a measure of Laguna’s success at becoming a year-round destination.

While the coast may be where bipeds play, it’s habitat for birds and pinnipeds to rest, feed and socialize as well. People need to better respect the fragile balance between people and wild animals so that both species survive.  “What’s the tipping point?” questions Almanza.

Some shorebirds and marine mammals, he added, can adapt to populated beaches during the day by feeding and resting at night, “if there’s no lighting there.” The problem is there is.

“When I lived at Crystal Cove in the ‘70s, population six and one cockapoo, you could see shooting stars falling into the ocean,” Almanza said.  “When I walked on the beach at night, I could also encounter sea lions because that’s their habitat.  If they were to do that in this town, where would they go?  Likely Woods Cove, Moss Cove, those secluded little coves.  But if you look at those coves, there are five or six large spotlights that shine down on the beach and the whitewater.”

Shoreline floodlighting enhances the nocturnal ocean views for humans, but is suspected in keeping away shorebirds such as short-legged, but speedy sandpipers and curved-beak whimbrels, at night, too, he said.

Councilmember Jane Egly said that businesses, including beachfront hotels, as well as residents who use whitewater floodlights, will more than likely be asked to at dim the wattage as part of the city’s efforts to minimize night-lighting.  The issue will come before the City Council at its July 12 meeting.

“I don’t see why there‘s any reason for people to have searchlights reflecting on the beach at night,” said Egly, who volunteered to work with a subcommittee that drafted a night-lighting ordinance to promote dark night skies for unimpeded stargazing.  She will help rework a draft ordinance addressing “overspill” lighting in neighborhoods, which relied on resident complaints.  Egly said the next version will not address habitat lighting.  “That will come later,” she said.

Almanza said the foundation conducted quarterly seasonal shorebird surveys for four years, taking a synchronized count from north to south beaches of up to 120 species.  The tally at Table Rock, taken on a sunny winter weekend day when there would normally be at least a flock or two of sandpipers feeding on sand crabs at low tide, was discouraging, he said, because flocks of beachgoers covered the sands instead.

“Most of the people who come to visit would come in the summer,” Almanza explained.  “But that’s changed.  Now we have people all the time here so that birds in the habitat are being squeezed out; people are taking over.

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