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Current Research Programmes

Impacts of disturbance and development on coastal and water birds

Human population densities are greatest in coastal areas and around wetlands. As a result, many coastal and water birds face significant threats from direct human disturbance. Some species appear to be able to tolerate disturbance, whereas others are decreasing in numbers. A key question is how tolerance develops among populations; is it learned, or is it the result of selection for more tolerant individuals? This programme assesses the impacts of disturbance and development on coastal and water birds, and devises practical methods to minimise the impacts of tourism on coastal-breeding shorebirds.

This programme had only one active project in 2017. PhD student Selena Flores completed her field work on the role of disturbance in driving population decreases in coastal populations of White-fronted Plovers Charadrius marginatus. Working with the Nature’s Valley Trust (NVT) in the Garden Route area, the main focus in 2017 was on devising effective measures to reduce the impacts of coastal tourism on this vulnerable shorebird species. Although Selena’s field work stopped after the 2016/17 breeding season, research staff and volunteers from the Nature’s Valley Trust continued to implement mitigation measures through the 2017/18 season, and to monitor the impact of these measures on White-fronted Plover breeding success.

Activities in 2017

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. Selena’s results from the first field season with a conservation intervention program running were encouraging. On the two beaches at Nature’s Valley where information boards, nesting area signs, brochures and active public engagement occurred, breeding success almost doubled from 8.6% to 15.2%, but the increase at Plettenberg Bay’s Lookout Beach was much more modest, from 10.6% to 12.7%. Breeding success at both sites remains worryingly low. Strong stakeholder engagement, driven by the NVT team, saw changes to beach management of dogs formalised late in 2017, with beaches now zoned from dogs off leash (green), on leash (orange), or no dogs allowed (red), based on the project’s bird breeding data.


  • Andrew de Blocq completed his MSc exploring the possible impacts of boat-based tourism at De Hoop Nature Reserve and graduated in mid 2017.
  • PhD student Selena Flores completed her field work in 2017. She presented some of her findings at the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Group meeting in Peru in November 2017.

Key co-sponsors

BirdLife Plettenberg Bay; Cape Nature; DST-NRF CoE grant; Keurboomstrand Property Owners’ Association; Knysna Toyota; Table Mountain Fund; Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust, Wader Quest.

Research team

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

Students: Andrew de Blocq (MSc, UCT), Selena Flores (PhD, UCT)

Research assistants:  Brittany Arendse, Jesse Beck, Taylor Frederichs, Aurora Hood, Christina Marques; Anathi Mbona; Sabine Meurens; Claire Gaudart-Wifling; Liezl Retief.