Birds on beaches are under attack from dogs, photographers and four-wheel drives. Here’s how you can help them


An adult fairy tern feeding a chick.
Claire Greenwell, Author provided

Claire Greenwell, Murdoch University

Environmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this new series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


Each year, oystercatchers, plovers and terns flock to beaches all over Australia’s coastline to lay eggs in a shallow scrape in the sand. They typically nest through spring and summer until the chicks are ready to take flight.

Spring and summer, however, are also when most people visit the beach. And human disturbances have increased breeding failure, contributing to the local contraction and decline of many beach-nesting bird populations.

Take Australian fairy terns (Sternula nereis nereis) in Western Australia, the primary focus of my research and photography, as an example. Their 2020-21 breeding season is coming to an end, and has been relatively poor.

Courting pair of Fairy Terns on the beach
Australian fairy tern pair. Males feed female mates, helping to supplement nutrients and energy for egg production.
Claire Greenwell

Fox predation and flooding from tidal inundation wiped out several colonies. Unfathomably, a colony was also lost after a four-wheel drive performed bog-laps in a sign-posted nesting area. Unleashed dogs chased incubating adults from their nests, and photographers entered restricted access sites and climbed fragile dunes to photograph nesting birds.

These human-related disturbances highlight the need for ongoing education. So let’s take a closer look at the issue, and how communities and individuals can make a big difference.

Nesting on the open beach

Beach-nesting birds typically breed, feed and rest in coastal habitats all year round. During the breeding season, which varies between species, they establish their nests above the high-water mark (high tide), just 20 to 30 millimetres deep in the sand.

Fairy Tern sitting on eggs
Eggs are sandy coloured and have a mottled appearance, which help them to blend in with the environment.
Claire Greenwell
Two Fairy Tern chicks. Down feathers are lightly coloured and mottled to help increase camouflage.
Fairy tern chicks crouch close to the ground to hide from predatory birds. Down feathers are lightly coloured and mottled to help increase camouflage.
Claire Greenwell

Some species, such as the fairy tern, incorporate beach shells, small stones and organic material like seaweed in and around the nest to help camouflage their eggs and chicks so predators, such as gulls and ravens, don’t detect them easily.

An adult Fairy Tern moving shell material around the nest site to increase camouflage of the eggs.
An adult fairy tern moving shell material around the nest site to increase the camouflage of its eggs.
Claire Greenwell

While nests are exposed and vulnerable on the open beach, it allows the birds to spot predators early and to remain close to productive foraging areas.

Still, beach-nesting birds live a harsh lifestyle. Breeding efforts are often characterised by low reproductive success and multiple nesting attempts may be undertaken each season.

Eggs and chicks remain vulnerable until chicks can fly. This takes around 43 days for fairy terns and about 63 days for hooded plovers (Thinornis rubricollis rubricollis).

Adult Fairy Tern feeding a chick
Eggs and chicks are vulnerable until chicks are capable of flight.
Claire Greenwell

Disturbances: one of their biggest threats

Many historically important sites are now so heavily disturbed they’re unable to support a successful breeding attempt. This includes the Leschenault Inlet in Bunbury, Western Australia, where fairy tern colonies regularly fail from disturbance and destruction by four-wheel drives.

Species like the eastern hooded plover and fairy tern have declined so much they’re now listed as “vulnerable” under national environment law. It lists human disturbance as a key threatening process.




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Birds see people and dogs as predators. When they approach, nesting adult birds distance themselves from the nest and chicks. For example, terns typically take flight, while plovers run ahead of the threat, “leading” it away from the area.

When eggs and chicks are left unattended, they’re vulnerable to predation by other birds, they can suffer thermal stress (overheating or cooling) or be trampled as their cryptic colouration makes them difficult to spot.

Silver Gull carrying away a Fairy Tern chick
Natural predators such as silver gulls readily take eggs and chicks when left unattended.
Claire Greenwell

Unlike plovers and oystercatchers, fairy terns nest in groups, or “colonies”, which may contain up to several hundred breeding pairs. Breeding in colonies has its advantages. For example, collective group defence behaviour can drive off predatory birds such as silver gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae).

However, this breeding strategy can also result in mass nesting failure. For example, in 2018, a cat visiting a colony at night in Mandurah, about 70 km south of Perth, killed six adults, at least 40 chicks and led to 220 adult birds abandoning the site. In other instances, entire colonies have been lost during storm surges.

Adult Fairy Terns mobbing a juvenile Crested Tern
Adult fairy terns engaged in group defence or ‘mobbing’ to drive away a juvenile crested tern from a colony.
Claire Greenwell

Small changes can make a big difference

Land and wildlife managers are becoming increasingly aware of fairy terns and the threats they face. Proactive and adaptive management combined with a good understanding of early breeding behaviour is helping to improve outcomes for these vulnerable birds.

Point Walter, in Bicton, WA, provides an excellent example of how recreational users and beach-nesting birds can coexist.

Point Walter, 18 km from Perth city, is a popular spot for picnicking, fishing, kite surfing, boating and kayaking. It’s also an important site for coastal birds, including three beach-nesting species: fairy terns, red-capped plovers and Australian pied oystercatchers (Haematopus longirostris).

Point Walter, Bicton with kite surfers and kayakers
Point Walter is a popular recreational site in Perth. Recent effective management, including seasonal closures, have enabled fairy terns, red-capped plovers and Australian pied oystercatchers to nest at the end of the sand bar.
Claire Greenwell

The end of the sand bar is fenced off seasonally, and as a result the past six years has seen the number of terns increase steadily. For the 2020-2021 season, the sand bar supported at least 150 pairs.

The closure also benefits the local population of red-capped plovers and Australian pied oystercatchers, who nest at the site each year.

Fairy Tern chick being brooded by its parent.
Fairy tern brooding (sitting on) its chick.
Claire Greenwell
An adult Australian Pied Oystercatcher teaching its offspring to hunt for prey.
An adult Australian pied oystercatcher teaching its offspring to hunt for prey.
Claire Greenwell

What’s more, strong community stewardship and management interventions by the City of Mandurah to protect a fairy tern colony meant this season saw the most successful breeding event in more than a decade — around 110 pairs at its peak.

Interventions included temporary fencing, signs, community education and increased ranger patrols. Several pairs of red-capped plovers also managed to raise chicks, adding to the success.

These examples highlight the potential for positive outcomes across their breeding range. But intervention during the early colony formation stage is critical. Temporary fencing, signage and community support are some of our most important tools to protect tern colonies.

So what can you do to protect beach-nesting birds?

Fairy Tern chick
A fairy tern chick at a site dedicated to fairy tern breeding.
Claire Greenwell
  • share the space and be respectful of signage and fencing. These temporary measures help protect birds and increase their chance of breeding success

  • keep dogs leashed and away from known feeding and breeding areas

  • avoid driving four-wheel drive vehicles on the beach, particularly at high tide

  • keep cats indoors or in a cat run (enclosure)

  • if you see a bird nesting on the beach, report it to local authorities and maintain your distance

  • avoid walking through flocks of birds or causing them to take flight. Disturbance burns energy, which could have implications for breeding and migration.




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The Conversation


Claire Greenwell, PhD Candidate, Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The open Australian beach is a myth: not everyone can access these spaces equally



Silas Baisch/Unsplash

Michelle O’Shea, Western Sydney University; Hazel Maxwell, University of Tasmania, and Megan Stronach, University of Technology Sydney

Last week, the McIver’s Ladies Baths in Sydney came under fire for their (since removed) policy stating “only transgender women who’ve undergone a gender reassignment surgery are allowed entry”. The policy was seemingly in defiance of New South Wales’ anti-discrimintation and sex discrimination acts.

Managed since 1922 by the Randwick and Coogee Ladies Amateur Swimming Club, the baths are a haven for women, and the last remaining women’s-only seawater pool in Australia.

Just over 100 public ocean pools sit on Australia’s rocky coast, most in New South Wales. Segregated baths gave women a place to experience the water, prohibited from most beach access until “continental” (or mixed gender) bathing was introduced in the early 20th century.

The council removed the wording on the website, and put out a statement saying they have “always supported the inclusion of transgender women at McIver’s Ladies Baths”. But this weekend, trans women and allies gathered at the baths, calling for a specifically inclusive policy to be drawn up.

Writing for Pedestrian, Alex Gallagher called the baths “a queer haven”. Of beaches, they wrote:

There’s likely no other place I feel such an undercurrent of anxiety that I’ll face scrutiny for not conforming to a sexist ideal of what a body “should” look like than the beach.

This is the latest in a long history of discrimination at Australia’s public beaches. Indeed, Australia’s beaches and ocean pools are a window into deep divisions.

Sites of contest

With Captain Cook’s arrival in 1770, coastal beaches were the first sites of early interactions and confrontations between the Aboriginal people and the colonisers.

Indigenous women, such as the Palawa women of Tasmania, once had an intimate relationship with water environments. Water was a playground as well as a source of nourishment and socialisation.




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The colonial erasure of these histories and knowledge has contributed to a culture where Aboriginal swimmers who defied convention – by participating in formal competition or by serving as lifeguards — were swimming against a tide of discrimination.

Aboriginal people were commonly caricatured at surf carnivals in degrading, costumed representations. The development of organised competitive swimming associations in Sydney in the late 1800s saw segregated “Natives’ Races”: scarcely mentioned in the media, except to demonstrate perceived white superiority in the baths.

Student Action for Aborigines protest outside Moree Artesian Baths, 1965. Aboriginal people were banned from the pool, and the protest drew national attention.
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy SEARCH Foundation, CC BY

As recently as the 1960s, it was routine for Aboriginal people to be banned from public swimming pools.

Owing to this discriminatory legacy, Aboriginal people — despite a history of a strong water culture — have historically rarely participated in organised swimming. But positive changes are beginning to emerge. In the past ten years, there has been a 47% reduction in drowning deaths in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, reflecting the development of programs specifically tailored for remote communities.




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Ocean freedoms and fears

The first year women competed in swimming at the Olympic games, 1912, Australians Sarah “Fanny” Durack and “Mina” Wylie won medals. The McIver’s Ladies Baths were an important venue for their preparations.

Two women in heavy bathing suits.
Fanny Durack (left) and Mina Wylie at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
Wikimedia Commons

But even as beaches and pools became desegregated along gender lines, women weren’t admitted as full members of Surf Lifesaving Australia until 1980.

Muslim people, in particular those women who wear the hijab, have also long faced discrimination on Australian beaches. This was brought to the fore at the Cronulla riots of December 2005, when a crowd of 5,000 mostly white young men rioted on Cronulla beach in a “Leb and Wog bashing day”.

Programs such as Western Sydney’s Swim Sisters challenge Islamophobia at Australia’s beaches. A sisterhood of religiously diverse women, the program allows women a space to challenge themselves and support each other. And 40 years after white women could join Surf Lifesaving, highly skilled Muslim women lifesavers are furthering the tides of change.

Physical access

Australians living with a disability often face poor beach access and a lack of specialised facilities such as beach matting, access ramps and beach wheelchairs.

Without easy access to the beach, many with a disability lack confidence in swimming in the ocean, and there are few training opportunities for carers to develop the skills to assist.

A blue mat cuts across the white sandy beach. A woman smiles in a beach wheelchair.
Mats allowing wheelchair access, and accessibility chairs that can travel on the sand and into the water, improve accessibility to beach spaces.
AAP Image/Supplied by City of Gold Coast

Here, too, there are positive signs of change, with Accessible Beaches Australia aiming to open all patrolled beaches to people with disability.

Despite our history, the myth Australia’s beaches are egalitarian spaces persists. We remain a long way off inclusivity for all in our public blue spaces.

The story of the McIver’s Ladies Baths is only the latest in a long history of discrimination. We must ensure everyone can find an ocean pool or beach where they belong.The Conversation

Michelle O’Shea, Senior Lecturer, School of Business, Western Sydney University; Hazel Maxwell, Senior Lecturer, University of Tasmania, and Megan Stronach, Post Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The world may lose half its sandy beaches by 2100. It’s not too late to save most of them



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John Church, UNSW

For many coastal regions, sea-level rise is a looming crisis threatening our coastal society, livelihoods and coastal ecosystems. A new study, published in Nature Climate Change, has reported the world will lose almost half of its valuable sandy beaches by 2100 as the ocean moves landward with rising sea levels.

Sandy beaches comprise about a third of the world’s coastline. And Australia, with nearly 12,000 kilometres at risk, could be hit hard.




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This is the first truly global study to attempt to quantify beach erosion. The results for the highest greenhouse gas emission scenario are alarming, but reducing emissions leads to lower rates of coastal erosion.

Our best hope for the future of the world’s coastlines and for Australia’s iconic beaches is to keep global warming as low as possible by urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Losing sand in coastal erosion

Two of the largest problems resulting from rising sea levels are coastal erosion and an already-observed increase in the frequency of coastal flooding events.

Erosion during storms can have dramatic consequences, particularly for coastal infrastructure. We saw this in 2016, when wild storms removed sand from beaches and damaged houses in Sydney.

After storms like this, beaches often gradually recover, because sand from deeper waters washes back to the shore over months to years, and in some cases, decades. These dramatic storms and the long-term sand supply make it difficult to identify any beach movement in the recent past from sea-level rise.

What we do know is that the rate of sea-level rise has accelerated. It has increased by half since 1993, and is continuing to accelerate from ongoing greenhouse gas emissions.

If we continue to emit high levels of greenhouse gases, this acceleration will continue through the 21st century and beyond. As a result, the supply of sand may not keep pace with rapidly rising sea levels.

Projections for the worst-case scenario

In the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released last year, the highest greenhouse gas emissions scenario resulted in global warming of more than 4°C (relative to pre-industrial temperatures) and a likely range of sea-level rise between 0.6 and 1.1 metres by 2100.

For this scenario, this new study projects a global average landward movement of the coastline in the range of 40 to 250 metres if there were no physical limits to shoreline movement, such as those imposed by sea walls or other coastal infrastructure.




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Sea-level rise is responsible for the vast majority of this beach loss, with faster loss during the latter decades of the 21st century when the rate of rise is larger. And sea levels will continue to rise for centuries, so beach erosion would continue well after 2100.

For southern Australia, the landward movement of the shoreline is projected to be more than 100 metres. This would damage many of Australia’s iconic tourist beaches such as Bondi, Manly and the Gold Coast. The movement in northern Australia is projected to be even larger, but more uncertain because of ongoing historical shoreline trends.

What happens if we mitigate our emissions

The above results are from a worst-case scenario. If greenhouse gas emissions were reduced such that the 2100 global temperature rose by about 2.5°C, instead of more than 4°C, then we’d reduce beach erosion by about a third of what’s projected in this worst-case scenario.

Current global policies would result in about 3°C of global warming.
That’s between the 4°C and the 2.5°C scenarios considered in this beach erosion study, implying our current policies will lead to significant beach erosion, including in Australia.

Mitigating our emissions even further, to achieve the Paris goal of keeping temperature rise to well below 2°C, would be a major step in reducing beach loss.

Why coastal erosion is hard to predict

Projecting sea-level rise and resulting beach erosion are particularly difficult, as both depend on many factors.

For sea level, the major problems are estimating the contribution of melting Antarctic ice flowing into the ocean, how sea level will change on a regional scale, and the amount of global warming.

The beach erosion calculated in this new study depends on several new databases. The databases of recent shoreline movement used to project ongoing natural factors might already be influenced by rising sea levels, possibly leading to an overestimate in the final calculations.




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The implications

Regardless of the exact numbers reported in this study, it’s clear we will have to adapt to the beach erosion we can no longer prevent, if we are to continue enjoying our beaches.

This means we need appropriate planning, such as beach nourishment (adding sand to beaches to combat erosion) and other soft and hard engineering solutions. In some cases, we’ll even need to retreat from the coast to allow the beach to migrate landward.

And if we are to continue to enjoy our sandy beaches into the future, we cannot allow ongoing and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The world needs urgent, significant and sustained global mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.The Conversation

John Church, Chair Professor, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Where does beach sand come from?



This started as a mountain range.
Bas Meelker/Shutterstock.com

David R. Montgomery, University of Washington

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.


Where does beach sand come from? – Sly M., age 6, Cambridge, Massachusetts


There’s more to beach sand than meets the eye. It has stories to tell about the land, and an epic journey to the sea. That’s because mountains end their lives as sand on beaches.

Over time, mountains erode. The mud, sand, gravel, cobbles and boulders they shed are washed into streams, which come together to form rivers. As they flow down to the sea, all this sediment is ground up and worn down in nature’s version of a rock tumbler.

Big rocks break down into smaller pieces, so most of what reaches the sea is mud. These silt and clay particles are too small to perceive with the naked eye. But you can see individual grains of sand, which are just bigger bits of rock.

Next time you’re at the beach, pick up a handful of sand and look closely at it. Are all the grains the same color, or a rainbow assortment? Are they jagged and angular, or smooth and round?

Some beaches in Hawaii have black sand because the islands were formed by erupting volcanoes. Many volcanic minerals are dark colored.
dronepicr/Wikipedia, CC BY

Different colors of sand come from different minerals, like khaki feldspar, smoky white quartz, green olivine or black basalt. The mix of colors in beach sand tells you what kinds of rocks produced it.

The shape of sand grains also provides clues about where they come from. Angular grains of the same type of sand have not traveled as far as smooth round grains, which have been more worn down. And weak rocks break down to mud faster than hard rocks, so sand tends to be made of the harder types that break down slowly.

About a tenth of the supply of sediment that reaches the sea is sand. These particles are between about half a millimeter and 2 millimeters in size – roughly as thick as a penny. These particles are large enough that they don’t flow right out to the deep sea.

But the beach is just a temporary stop for sand. Big waves pull it offshore, and smaller waves push it along the coast. So keeping a beach nourished with sand is essential for keeping it sandy.

Many beach towns spend millions of dollars to rebuild eroded beaches with new sand.

Yet today many beaches are starving. Many dams trap the sand that flows down rivers, piling it up in reservoirs. All in all, human activity has cut off about half the sand that would otherwise end up on the world’s beaches.

But humans haven’t turned the waves off, so as beach sand washes away and isn’t replenished, the shoreline erodes. That means that many beaches around the world are shrinking, slowly but surely.

So next time you dig your toes into beach sand think about the epic journey it took to arrive beneath your feet. Take a moment to think about where the sand came from and where it’s going.


Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.The Conversation

David R. Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.