Ground-nesting birds and responsible dog walking

Ground-nesting birds and responsible dog walking

Golden plover and lapwing - Andrew Parkinson/2020Vision

Andrew Excell, South East Suffolk Sites Manager, explains why it's so important to keep dogs on leads to protect ground-nesting birds.

As we all continue to take our daily air and exercise locally in this difficult time, visits to our natures reserves and walks along estuaries and the coast will become increasingly important for our own well-being.

Spring is a beautiful time to witness nature busily building new life. This is such a crucial time of year for wildlife, so please always remember the importance of keeping your dog on a short lead. Failing to do so can significantly decrease breeding success, particularly for ground nesting bird species, which are so vulnerable to disturbance.

Ringed plover with 3 chicks at Shingle Street beach (photo: Andrew Excell)

Ringed plover with 3 chicks at Shingle Street beach (photo: Andrew Excell)

What constitutes disturbance, and why is it so crucial to avoid it?

An example could be a dog off a lead, simply ‘doing what dogs do’, nosing and exploring a little further off the beaten track. While this may look harmless to owners, the unfortunate effects can be to flush birds from their hidden nests and prevent them from settling for several minutes at a time, leaving eggs unattended and exposed. The cumulative impacts of this are: 

  • Birds failing to nest or eggs failing to hatch due to chilling
  • Chicks dying from cold or lack of food
  • Nests becoming vulnerable to predators, including crows, which can be alerted by signs of a distressed parent bird alarming near its nest site due to disturbance, taking the opportunity offered to steal eggs or chicks from the unattended nest.

A number of charismatic but declining breeding bird species nest on the ground in the UK. Three typical examples are:

  • UK breeding nightingales, which typically now breed in dense low scrub cover in damper habitats. They have declined by over 90% since the late 1960s.
  • Redshanks, which nest on saltmarsh, grazing marsh or even on river wall grassland habitat. They have declined by 50% on saltmarsh since 1985.
  • Ringed plovers lay eggs in a nest of shingle and sand on stony spits and beach fragments. There is no physical nest, just the camouflage offered by the surrounding carefully positioned pebbles matching laid eggs. They have declined by 37% since 1984.
Ringed plover nest at Levington foreshore (photo: Andrew Excell)

Ringed plover nest at Levington foreshore (photo: Andrew Excell)

There are many factors causing these declines, of course, but we can all do our bit to help by simply exercising responsible behaviour. Keep a vigilant eye open for any signs of distress behaviour in parent birds, which can include frequent loud alarm calling, often in flight near the nest. If you see this, please just back away and avoid routes away from paths. Please always respect the messages on signs that have been put up to help protect our ground nesting birds.

Along our estuaries and coast, high water roosts can typically bring huge flocks of waterbirds closer to paths. These roosts are vital for birds to rest and regain energy levels before feeding again as the tide falls. Our Suffolk estuaries are all internationally important for their overwintering bird assemblages (many of these birds staying with us well until May), and nationally important for declining breeding species such as redshank. Studies show that it can take a full day for birds to refuel the energy they use flying as a result of disturbance events. Keeping a little further away from these key roosting areas so as not to put birds to flight, can really help bird survival.

We hope that visitors will support us and keep to marked footpaths and tracks on our reserves. Our members can play an important role in helping to communicate the importance of sensitive behaviour on our best places for wildlife. Please spread the word so we can all appreciate and at the same time help our local wildlife!