Sunday, 8 January 2012

Sharing the Shore


Summer surf on Tasmania's East Coast 

They come in boats, they come in cars, they come on foot. They bring their ragged temporary dwellings, their exotic foods, their noisy animals, their strange cultural practices. If it feels like an invasion, to the creatures that live on our shorelines it really IS an invasion.

Every summer, Tasmanians come down to the shore, to spend those few precious days or weeks with sand between their toes and salt on their skin. Whether the weather cooperates is almost beside the point. It’s about getting back in touch with saltwater and ourselves. It’s a primaeval ritual so deep and strong that it’s easy to believe those who say we came from the sea in the first place.


Scenes from East Coast Tasmania 
But as creatures of comfort and instant gratification, these days we’re inclined to overlook who we share the shoreline with. Shorebirds are one obvious example.

I am visiting the Bay of Fires in Tasmania’s north-east. Today it is living up to its name, in temperature at least. By the time we reach the shore at Policemans Point the temperature is in the high 30s. Unless you’re immersed in the water, the conditions are ideal for neither bird nor beast. We still manage to see a dozen different species of shorebirds, including a pair of endangered little tern (Sterna albifrons sinensis).

As we wander the estuary shore, we start to see why some of these birds are endangered. There are a few boats messing about in the water. On the beach there are a couple of dogs and about a dozen people. In Tasmania that constitutes a crowd! There are also tyre tracks all over the sand: in short a pretty normal summer’s afternoon  at the beach.

But if you’re a little tern or a hooded plover, both birds which lay eggs straight on the sand above high tide, it’s perilous. At any time eggs or chicks are vulnerable to crushing, trampling or harassment by humans or their agents.


People, their feet, and their machines, can harm what lives on the shoreline 

As we watch a dog lollops up the beach doing what dogs do. It sniffs, runs, jumps about in the water, barks its happiness, turns to see where its humans are. Meanwhile it is getting nearer to three pelicans resting on the water. It doesn’t appear to have designs on the huge birds, but nonetheless its presence is too much for them. They lift off like lumbering, feathered float planes, and circle the estuary looking for somewhere safer to be. It’s an innocent enough scenario, but one that is repeated – and worsted – all over Australia’s accessible coastlines. And it’s avoidable.


A dog innocently scares off a group of pelicans 

Only the most severely eco-pathic individual would deliberately want to harm shorebirds. But through ignorance and an over-strong focus on only our own needs, we can still be responsible for putting fatal pressure on the birds that share the shore with us.

One simple action here would be to have dogs on leashes when there are birds on beaches. Another would be to keep vehicles off beaches, or where they’re loading/unloading boats, only access the water via a straight line perpendicular to the shore. And for people walking on shorelines, the simple rule is to stick to the wetter sand, so as to avoid the nesting sites that may be in the drier, higher sands.

I would add one other suggestion. Get a pair of binoculars and a bird book, and start getting to know who it is we share the shore with. I’ve yet to hear anyone say they regretted taking up bird-watching.





Dog and pelican: both delightful, but not comfortable together 


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