Current Research Programmes

Shorebirds under threat

Human population densities are greatest in coastal areas and around wetlands. As a result, many coastal and water birds face significant threats from human disturbance as well as habitat loss and degradation. Migrant shorebirds are particularly at risk because they require secure breeding and non-breeding areas, as well as staging points along their migration routes. As a result, we have seen sharp declines in many migrant shorebird populations in South Africa, mirroring a widespread global trend. This programme continues ‘Disturbing the Peace’, which focused mainly on managing the impacts of direct human disturbance on shorebirds, but also examines the plight of long-distance migrant shorebirds in the region.

The project on managing disturbance to shore-breeding waders in the Garden Route area has largely shifted to the implementation phase, with field research stopping in 2017. PhD student Selena Flores analysed the data collected with the Nature’s Valley Trust (NVT) to understand the factors driving population decreases in coastal populations of White-fronted Plovers Charadrius marginatus. Research staff and volunteers from the NVT continue to implement mitigation measures through the 2017/18 and 2018/19 breeding seasons, and to monitor the impact of these measures on White-fronted Plover breeding success. Encouragingly, early indications are that the conservation intervention work is successful, with increases in breeding success on some beaches.

Activities in 2018

  • Selena Flores monitored White-fronted Plovers on the coast around Plettenberg Bay for the third breeding season in succession. She is testing how plover breeding behaviour differs over a disturbance gradient. While Selena’s efforts now focus on completing her PhD thesis, the NVT research team continues the work on the ground. The 2018/2019 breeding season saw mixed results – Nature’s Valley breeding success has stabilised over the last two seasons  to between 25 and 30% (up from around 9% pre-intervention work), while lack of enforcement and sheer volume of conflict on Lookout Beach in Plettenberg Bay saw the plovers have a bad year there. Strong stakeholder engagement, driven by the NVT team, continued linking up with BirdLife South Africa’s Bird of the Year Programme.
  • Gary Allport asked the Fitz to host a project to investigate the population size and movements of Steppe Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris, the very poorly known subspecies of Whimbrel thought to breed in the steppes of western Asia. Gary ‘rediscovered’ a few Steppe Whimbrels in southern Mozambique in 2016, and since then a few have been recorded at wetlands in Mozambique and at Richard’s Bay. A funding application was made to cover the costs of tracking a few birds to discover their breeding grounds, and to conduct a survey of the main wetlands in Mozambique to get a better idea of the population size.


  • PhD student Selena Flores continued working up her data on the impacts of human disturbance on White-fronted Plovers.
  • Gary and Peter obtained a grant from the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund to track Steppe Whimbrels.

Key supporters

BirdLife Plettenberg Bay; DST-NRF CoE grant; Wader Quest, Nature’s Valley Trust.

Research team

Prof. Peter Ryan (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Gary Allport (BirdLife International)
Dr Mark Brown (Nature’s Valley Trust)
Dr Robert Thomson (FIAO, UCT)

Students: Selena Flores (PhD, UCT)

Research assistants:  Brittany Arendse, Kellyn Whitehead, Bruno Mels