Today, thanks to a new grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, birds that breed and overwinter on the Gulf Coast have even better chances at survival. An Audubon-led team of researchers will receive nearly $100,000 in funding related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which killed 11 people and up to 1 million birds. With this much-needed funding from the RESTORE Act Science Program, the research team will partner with stakeholders across the Gulf to measure and refine the effectiveness of coastal stewardship to protect birds from human disturbance.

Eleven years ago, the spill unleashed 210 million gallons of oil into the ecosystem, spelling disaster for birds and their habitats on the Gulf Coast. This threat only compounded the numerous threats coastal birds already face: human development, sea-level rise, and stronger, more frequent hurricanes. Coastal breeding birds have experienced dramatic population declines over the last 50 years, due in part to habitat loss and alterations. Birds then crowd into the remaining areas of suitable habitat, where they’re exposed to an additional stressor: human disturbance. These birds nest directly on sandy beaches, well camouflaged and yet right under our noses.

When humans visit those same beaches, we can easily get too close, causing bird parents to fly away from their nests, leaving eggs exposed to heat and predators. Even in the non-breeding season, our presence can scare birds away from their resting and feeding grounds, where they need to access critical resources for the long overwintering period and subsequent long-distance migration.

That’s where Coastal Bird Stewardship Programs such as Audubon’s come in. To give coastal birds a better chance, Audubon staff, partners, and volunteers spend countless hours on their local beaches monitoring birds and making sure beachgoers give them enough space to thrive. Two recent Audubon-led studies showed that this strategy is working—coastal bird populations grew 2-34 times faster where stewardship occurred than at other protected areas, and specifically, stewardship increases nest success of Least Terns.

However, many uncertainties remain about how to most efficiently and effectively implement stewardship and management to protect coastal birds. For example, relatively few studies to date directly link specific conservation actions, such as human disturbance reduction, predator control, or vegetation management with better outcomes in nest success, daily nest survival, fledging success, or post-fledging and first-year survival for coastal birds. Understanding how different types of coastal stewardship actions impact how young birds survive the nesting season, or how many adult birds survive from year to year, is absolutely essential to develop stewardship and management plans that successfully reduce the negative impacts of human disturbance and demonstrably make a difference for coastal birds.

Audubon will use this new grant to work together with external collaborators across the Gulf Coast—including scientists, landowners, and resource managers from the Biodiversity Research Institute, Edward Wisner Donation Trust, Illinois Natural History Survey, Louisiana Tech University, Texas A&M University, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and University of Houston—to improve upon current stewardship and management plans that protect the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal birds.

Abby Darrah, a biologist with Audubon Delta, has several questions she hopes this study can help answer to improve Mississippi’s Coastal Bird Stewardship Program. “We hope to learn the answers to questions such as which days, times, and locations are most beneficial to have beach stewards out on the beach protecting birds? We’ve also created chick shelters to shield baby birds from the punishing summer sun. We’d like to study what makes those chick shelters most beneficial—whether they’re best for a specific bird species, habitat type, or a beach with a certain level of foot traffic.”

Several young Least Terns with fuzzy, downy feathers huddle under the shade of a chick shelter, a small wooden structure shaped like a tent to protect young birds from the hot sun on a Mississippi beach.

The end result of this process will be a co-produced research proposal that will help resource managers, including Audubon and other bird conservation stakeholders, plan future conservation projects for Gulf Coast nesting areas with greater confidence. Darrah looks forward to this opportunity to collect much-needed data with her colleagues across the region. “This is an unprecedented opportunity to pool Audubon's expertise in coastal bird stewardship to design a large-scale study that evaluates stewardship effectiveness and maximizes its benefits.”

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