Bird stewards -- individuals who police protected beaches and educate the public about the birds who inhabit it -- greatly increase the effectiveness of protected beaches, an Eckerd College survey finds.
"During 28 four-hour surveys, we observed nearly nine times more intruders into protected areas when there was no bird steward, compared to when a steward was present," says Beth Forys, professor of environmental science and biology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, who completed the survey in a report to the National Fish & Wildlife Federation.
Human disturbance greatly disturbs migratory and overwintering shorebirds, such as the Red Knot, a robin-sized shorebird whose numbers have significantly declined in the past decade.
"While most Red Knots migrate from breeding grounds in the Arctic to wintering grounds at the tip of South America, a small portion of the population overwinters in Florida," Forys explains. "To make the trip to the Arctic to breed, Red Knots must have enough energy, and over-harvesting of their prey combined with disturbance may be impeding their ability to gain enough weight to make the long trip."
To better understand what management measures could help Red Knots in their Florida wintering grounds, Forys conducted the study to see if the endangered bird would be able to forage and rest more if a portion of the beach were protected.
Frequency and sources of disturbance to Red Knots were determined both for a year-round, symbolically-fenced, "protected area" on a county park beach and for three municipal beaches without fenced-off protected areas for shorebirds. Differences between rates of human-related disturbances per hour of observation within the fenced-off protected area versus the unprotected beaches were statistically significant.
Dr. Forys' field research then evaluated frequency of human intrusions into a fenced-off shorebird protection area with and without a bird steward present at the boundary of the protected area.
"A bird steward is an individual who wears a labeled, brightly colored vest and who educates the public about birds while asking them not to enter a protected area," she says. "If people entered the protected area, the bird steward would ask them to leave."
"While relatively few people entered the posted area, the presence of bird stewards effectively decreased that number," she says.
"This two-year project provides strong evidence for the importance of establishing symbolically-fenced beach areas attended by bird stewards that together minimize human intrusion and disturbance to shorebirds," Forys says.
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