[CT Birds] Testimony from West Haven City Council Meeting

COMINS, Patrick PCOMINS at audubon.org
Tue Aug 25 10:07:20 EDT 2009

Mostly supporters of Sandy Point at last night's meeting, including a few birders and local residents.  I haven't heard if the Council voted or how.  Below is the testimony I presented, which is kind of long:

Testimony of Patrick Comins, Director of Bird Conservation
West Haven City Council
Public Hearing
Re: Proposed changes to City Ordinance on motorized vehicles on West Haven Beaches
August 24, 2009

Audubon Connecticut is the state office of the National Audubon Society with more than 10,000 members in the state, works to protect birds, other wildlife and their habitats through education, research, conservation and legislative advocacy.

Audubon Connecticut has serious concerns about weakening regulations governing the use of motorized vehicles on West Haven's Beaches and about the potential impacts of paragliders and kite boards on the nesting and migratory birds that utilize Sandy and Morse Points.   We respectfully request that such activities be directed as far as possible away from nesting and foraging areas surrounding Sandy and Morse Points and that regulations governing the use of motorized vehicles on beaches not be weakened.

Sandy and Morse Points have been recognized by the National Audubon Society as one of 27 Important Bird Areas in Connecticut.  The area consists of a City-owned barrier beach (sand spit) system with a tidal creek and an area of tidal marsh and tidal flats.  Sandy and Morse Points are extremely popular for fishing and other beach related uses in the warmer months, as well as being a popular destination for birders.

The area is one of the most significant nesting locations in Connecticut for the federally threatened Piping Plover, and also one of the most important Least Tern and mainland Common Tern nesting colonies in the state.  Sandy Point was the first successful nesting area in Connecticut for Black Skimmers and receives significant use by migrating shorebirds, which roost on the sand spit and sandbars at high tide and forage on the tidal flats at lower tides.  It is one of the primary stopover areas for Red Knot in Connecticut, a species considered a candidate species for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.  It is also one of the primary tern staging areas in the state, including federally endangered Roseate Terns.  The area is utilized by Saltmarsh Sparrows, a species that is vulnerable to global extinction, in the nesting season and in migration.  The area is significant for birds in all seasons and is a migration and wintering area for the rare 'Ipswich' Savannah Sparrow and the nearby waters are an important wintering area for waterfowl including Atlantic Brant and large flocks of Greater Scaup.  The intertidal zone and marsh are a key foraging area for state-listed long-legged wading birds, including Snowy and Great Egrets in nesting and post-nesting dispersal seasons.

We have several concerns about the proposed changes to the City ordinance and their impacts on the natural resources of Sandy Point:
*       Weakening the ban on motorized vehicles could open the door to additional detrimental activities on West Haven's Beaches.  Would this lead to user groups requesting to operate ATV's and other off-road vehicles on beaches?  Such activities are entirely incompatible with nesting Piping Plovers and other beach nesting birds.   One of the key limiting factors for Piping Plover productivity is vehicle induced mortality.  Unlike most birds we are familiar with, shorebirds produce precocial young that are mobile soon after hatching.  Their survival strategy is one of camouflage and concealment.  When a threat is perceived, the instinct of plover chicks is to hunker down in a depression and use their camouflage to hide until the threat has passed.  Unfortunately, tire tracks work well as a hiding spot and most birds are never seen by a vehicle operator and are extremely vulnerable to death in such situations.  Off-road vehicles are entirely incompatible with Piping Plovers.
*       Even if no additional exceptions are sought, low-flying kites, kite-boards, paragliders or other similar devices cast shadows that are perceived by adult and juvenile birds as an aerial predator.  This causes them to waste precious energy evading the perceived threat.  This can be especially damaging in the incubation phase, as the reaction to such threats by brooding birds is to leave the nest and attempt to distract the predator away from their eggs.  Plovers have been known to respond in such a way to kites that are over 100 meters distant.  On a cold or hot day, this can expose the eggs to unsafe temperature swings and endanger egg viability. Federal guidelines suggest a 200 M (218.8 yard) buffer from such activities and at Long Beach in Stratford, parasailors have agreed to a 750 yard buffer.
*       Enforcement:  While the paragliders have expressed a willingness to avoid flying over Sandy Point after launch, would allowing this activity open the door to additional enthusiasts?  Would these new participants respect such buffers? Will the group be self-policing or will the City provide enforcement? Even if such restrictions are formalized, how would such regulations be enforced? Does the City have the resources given the current economic climate to devote enforcement resources to Sandy/Morse Point if problems arise or if the popularity, and subsequently the number of participants, increases?  Because these species are protected under the federal endangered species act, this is a significant question with implications for a landowner such as the City.
*       Section 7 consultation: Will opening this area to such activities require a Section 7 consultation with US Fish and Wildlife Service under the ESA if the activities are slated to occur during the nesting season? Will the City have to hold these annually as nesting area selection can vary from year to year?

The only reasonable solution to safeguarding the integrity of this nesting area would be to move any proposed activities as far from Sandy and Morse Points as possible, thus greatly reducing the threat of disturbance to federally protected birds and other wildlife at this critical natural area.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to weigh in on this important topic.

Patrick M. Comins
Director of Bird Conservation
Audubon Connecticut
pcomins at audubon.org


Audubon Center at Bent of the River
185 East Flat Hill Road
Southbury,  CT 06488
Phone:  (203)264-5098 x305
or 203-267-6732 x305
Fax: (203)264-6332

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