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Lizzie Bruce, RSPB Warden, North West Norfolk reserves on the plight of beachnesting birds; and how we can all help them

The much-loved Norfolk coast has some of the largest areas of undeveloped coastal habitat in Europe, incredibly rich in wildlife throughout the year, and protected at the national and international level.  

During the spring and summer many of our beaches are home to breeding ringed plovers, oystercatchers and little terns in  important numbers. Yet they are suffering significant declines. The little tern is one of Britain’s rarest breeding seabirds with just 1500 pairs in the whole of the UK. A third of this population breeds in Norfolk alone. The Norfolk ringed plover breeding population has declined by 70% in just 30 years. 

Ringed plovers, little terns and oystercatchers are beach nesting birds;
they make a shallow scrape in the sand or shingle on the beach to lay their eggs. They tend to avoid areas of vegetation so that they have a clear line
of sight of approaching predators. Their eggs and chicks have evolved to camouflage with their environment making it difficult for us to see.  This makes them vulnerable to being trampled. 

With visitor numbers increasing on the coast these birds are experiencing high levels of disturbance and trampling. A recent study in Norfolk suggested that ringed plover populations would increase by 8% if human disturbance stopped. But if visitor numbers doubled the population would decrease by 23%. 

Beach nesting birds view people and all dogs as a threat to their nest or chicks and so the birds will react. They may make an alarm call – signalling they are not happy. Ringed plovers often pretend to have a broken wing to distract you from their nest. Some birds may dive bomb you – this is a clear clear sign that they are stressed and you should leave. Some will show more subtle behaviour – circling above for instance.

Disturbance can lead to birds failing to nest and abandoning the site; eggs being exposed to hot sunshine, rain or wind 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; and accidental trampling of the nest containing eggs or defenceless chicks. 

Human persecution by egg theft, which is illegal,  as well as predation are also issues. Increased human presence is pushing birds into smaller colonies to breed. This, in turn makes them easy targets for predators such as fox, badger, hedgehog, kestrels and gulls. Adult little terns and ringed plovers can become the target. 

Climate change is also a threat to these  birds, as rising sea levels combined with onshore winds and spring tides means there is an increasing risk of coastal flooding, particularly in May and June when breeding birds are most vulnerable. Nests and eggs are washed away, chicks can drown. An increase in winter storms is resulting in reduced habitat availability.  

Lizzie Bruce is RSPB Warden, North West Norfolk reserves 

How can you help? 

With your help we can all play our part in ensuring Norfolk’s beach nesting birds can rear their next generation. These birds need space to breed undisturbed so a few changes to our behaviour could make all the difference: 

1 Be aware of the crucial breeding period between April/May and August.

2 Look out for and respect the signage located along the coast signalling beach nesting birds are present. 

3 Keep a good distance away from beach cordons; they are there to protect beach nesting birds from being trampled.

4 Beach nesting birds use camouflage to keep eggs and chicks safe – watch where you walk!

5 Walk along the water’s edge or paths where they exist.  

6 Be aware of the birds’ activity – do they appear agitated? Are the terns dive bombing you? If yes, carefully move away. 

7 Please keep dogs on leads and prevent them from approaching cordoned areas and disturbing birds.  

8 Don’t leave or bury rubbish or food scraps on beaches – this may attract predators or birds can become tangled up in the rubbish.