In many cultures and religions, the avian egg is a symbol of new life, and indeed of hope – particularly so at Easter. However, symbolic though eggs may be for us as humans, for birds they really do represent new life, and the prospect of new generations. At a time when isolation leads many of us to a degree of introspection, perhaps we should also pause to think about the potential ramifications of Covid 19 on the environment, and on coastal birds in particular.
Above: The eggs of coastal-nesting birds have evolved to be camouflaged on shingle, gravel and sand, making them almost impossible for the casual observer, or beach-goer, to spot. From left to right these are: Little Tern, Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover. Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd
For many of our coastal waders and terns, their preferred nesting sites are beaches, both shingle and sand. But in most years human disturbance prevents them from breeding on almost all accessible and public beaches in England and Wales, and to a lesser degree Scotland too. There are exceptions of course – a few strictly monitored reserves and offshore islands, for example. However, by and large we as a species exclude nesting birds from large stretches of coastline, simply by our presence and activities.
One of the likely consequences of the admirable Covid 19 self-isolation adhered to by the majority of the population is empty beaches, devoid of people and out-of-control dogs just at a time when birds such as Oystercatchers, Ringed Plovers and Little Terns are thinking about nesting. So, in 2020 there is a chance they might, just might, have a successful breeding season, using areas of the coast from which they are excluded in every other year. In most people’s lifetime, this is the only season when this might be even remotely possible.
Above: In many situations, Little Terns like to nest just above the strandline – right where a family might ‘set up camp’ for a day at the seaside. Mark Bolton/Nature Photographers Ltd
However, what happens when ‘stay at home’ policies are finally relaxed? The inevitable result will be people flocking to our beaches in unprecedented numbers. And if that happens before nesting has finished – eggs hatched and chicks fledged – then the results will be catastrophic for coastal breeding birds.
Above: Ringed Plover eggs and chicks are so well camouflaged and unobtrusive that they are hard for even a well-trained eye to spot. Incubating birds often sit tight until the last minute and unless a beach walker can recognise the tell-tale signs of alarm – parental behaviour designed to divert attention, and alarm calls – this spells disaster. It hardly needs pointing out that dogs are significant factors in the disturbance and destruction of ground-nesting birds, and the success or otherwise of their breeding attempts. Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd
The trouble is, because nobody ‘in the know’ is visiting these beaches at the moment, there is a real risk that nesting birds will go unnoticed and we will never know how much we might have gained in environmental terms, or lost through our actions if lock-down ends. In these times of uncertainty, we are constantly being told how important it is to be in touch with nature, which shouldn’t mean rampaging through the countryside but rather empathising with it. In this regard, I have a suggestion to local councils and Government generally, one aimed specifically at our coasts but relevant to all habitats where birds nest. Before our beaches are ‘unlocked’ fully and opened up to a public free-for-all, employ the surveying expertise of the British Trust for Ornithology to find out what’s going on. Then there would be a chance to locate and protect vulnerable nesting species. Let’s not make a bad situation worse by squandering one potentially positive outcome amidst this dreadful situation. As nature suffers, we suffer too.
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