Humans alter habitat selection of birds on ocean-exposed sandy beaches


Justin J. Meager, Faculty of Science, Health and Education, University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore DC, Qld 4558, Australia.


Aim  Resource-selection functions (RSFs) can quantify and predict the density of animal populations across heterogeneous landscapes and are important conservation tools in areas subject to human disturbance. Sandy beach ecosystems have comparatively low habitat heterogeneity and structural relief in the intertidal zone, but intense human use. We aimed to develop predictive RSFs for birds on ocean-exposed sandy beaches at two spatial scales, 25 ha (local scale) and 250 ha (landscape scale), and to test whether habitat selection of birds that commonly use the surf–beach–dune interface is influenced by the rates of human activities.

Location  Moreton and North Stradbroke Island, eastern Australia.

Methods  Avifauna and human activities were mapped on three sandy beaches covering 79 km of coastline for 15 months. Habitat characteristics of the surf–beach–dune interface were derived from remote sensing and ground surveys. RSFs were developed for 12 species of birds at two spatial scales: 25 ha (local scale) and 250 ha (landscape scale).

Results  At local (25 ha) and landscape scales (250 ha), dune dimensions and the extent and type of vegetation structure were important predictors of bird density. Adding the frequency of human activities improved the predictive power of RSFs, suggesting that habitat selection of birds on beaches is modified by human use of these environments. Human activities occurred mostly in the mid- to lower intertidal zone of the beach, overlapping closely with the preferred habitats of Silver Gulls (Larus novaehollandiae), Pied Oystercatchers (Haematopus longirostris), Red-capped Plovers (Charadrius ruficapillus) and endangered Little Terns (Sternula albifrons).

Main conclusions  In addition to demonstrating the appropriateness of RSFs to the surf–beach–dune interface, our results stress the need for systematic conservation planning for these ecosystems, where ecological values have traditionally been subsidiary to the maintenance of sand budgets and erosion control.