The Essex coast provides opportunities for recreation. Housing and consequent population growth in Essex is likely to increase the number of visitors to these sensitive coastal areas, creating the potential for impacts from increased recreational disturbance of the birds and their habitats, unless adequately managed.
What is disturbance?
Birds perceive people and their dogs as a threat. When people and dogs get too close, the birds sense danger and focus on the perceived threat, changing their behaviour. They may stop feeding or resting and walk, swim or fly away.
For many birds feeding time is limited to around low tide as they feed in the shallow waters. At high tide they need to rest on the shore or nearby to conserve energy and wait for the next low tide. Some birds are also restricted to feeding during daylight, which is very short during the winter.
During the winter period there can be high numbers of birds present and therefore competition for food and resources. If disturbance happens often the birds may even avoid areas completely. That means more competition for food elsewhere and some birds will be unable to find enough to eat.
Whilst moving to a new location away from disturbance birds use up crucial energy which is needed over the winter months. Continual disturbance may result in a decline in birds as they cannot feed and rest properly, therefore may fail during the next breeding season.
In cold, wet and windy weather birds use a lot of energy to keep warm and avoid predators. During harsh winters, a prolonged cold spell can mean birds struggle to get sufficient feeding time in between tides and any disturbance in these conditions is more significant to bird populations.
Disturbance to wintering and passage birds can result in:
- A reduction in time spent feeding due to repeated flushing/increased vigilance;
- Increased energetic costs;
- Avoidance of areas of otherwise suitable habitat, potentially with birds feeding on poorer quality locations; and
- Increased stress.
Key breeding roosts are known on particular estuaries/shorelines and in specific locations where habitat and conditions enable territories to become established.
Recreational pressure adds to the stresses of defending a territory, laying eggs and rearing chicks which means that birds are often more vulnerable, and levels of public access to breeding areas can rise in the summer months too.
During the breeding season, disturbance can affect breeding success as it can result in:
- Nest desertion
- Potential trampling of eggs
- An increase in predation.