Bird communities inhabiting ecosystems adjacent to recreational tracks may be adversely affected by disturbance from passing tourism traffic, vehicle-related mortality, habitat alteration and modified biotic relationships such as the increase of strong competitors. This study investigated the effects of tourist usage of roads vs. hiking trails on bird communities in gorges of the Flinders Ranges, a popular South Australian tourist destination in the arid-lands.
High tourist usage along roads decreased the individual abundance and species richness of birds relative to low usage trails. The decrease in species richness, though less pronounced, also occurred at high-usage sites along trails. Changes in the species response to recreational disturbance/impacts varied depending on the ecology of the species. Bigger, more competitive birds with a generalist diet were overrepresented at high-usage sites along roads and trails. Species using microhabitats in lower vegetation layers were more sensitive.
However, structural and floristic complexity of vegetation was a more important factor influencing bird abundance than tourist usage. Sites with a better developed shrub and tree layer sustained higher species abundance and richer communities. Importantly, vegetation qualities moderated the negative effect of high usage on the individual abundance of birds along roads, to the extent that such an effect was absent at sites with the best developed shrub and tree layer.
To protect avifauna along recreational tracks in arid-lands gorges, we recommend the closure of some gorges or sections for vehicle or any access. Further, open space particularly for camping needs to be minimized as it creates areas of high tourist usage with modified habitat that provides birds with little buffer from disturbance.