Evaluating annual recruitment of sea duck populations in the Atlantic Flyway using harvest and photo survey juvenile proportions
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AuthorHewitt, Jacob E.
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AbstractChapter 1: Sea duck (tribe mergini) populations in the Atlantic Flyway have experienced significant declines in recent years, though underlying causes are poorly understood. Information on population demographic parameters may provide insight for wildlife managers seeking to maintain sustainable harvest. However, population monitoring capacity for sea ducks is limited relative to other migratory bird species due to their remote breeding distribution. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service organizes a Parts Collection Survey (PCS) which estimates recruitment in sea duck populations using age ratios (juveniles/adult), though estimates are biased due to differential harvest vulnerability between age-cohorts. I used a direct-count photo survey to calculate improved estimates of annual recruitment for long-tailed duck, black scoter, surf scoter, and white-winged scoter (hereafter sea ducks) populations in the Atlantic Flyway. I and other surveyors collected photos of flighted sea ducks from shore and by boat in 11 states from October 15-December 15 annually in 2019-2022. We classified photographed birds according to age and sex and calculated juvenile proportions of each species using a Bayesian binomial model. To compare photo survey estimates with PCS estimates, I used a paired t-test organized by year. I found that PCS estimates of juvenile proportions were significantly greater than photo survey estimates for three sea duck species, indicating a consistent positive bias in PCS driven by harvest vulnerability. I also derived novel estimates of juvenile harvest vulnerability using the mean difference between within-year estimates. My work demonstrated the photo survey methodology used in this study produced reliable and precise annual recruitment estimates for four poorly monitored waterfowl populations; I recommend managers continue to adopt this approach in future years with additional consideration given for spatial representation and refinement of image classification procedures for long-tailed duck estimates. Chapter 2: Components of breeding productivity and survival rates in avian populations respond to dynamic environmental stressors across the annual cycle, which therein shape population dynamics over time. In sea ducks (tribe mergini), few studies have characterized the ecological factors that drive annual recruitment trends at the population level over time due to scarce scalable population information. Here, I leveraged historic harvest survey recruitment estimates (juvenile proportions) and indicators of environmental conditions at breeding, staging, and wintering areas from 1980-2017 to investigate factors influencing annual recruitment rates in eastern North American populations of long-tailed ducks (Clangula hyemalis), black scoters (Melanitta americana), white-winged scoters (M. delgandi) and surf scoters (M. perspicilatta). Recruitment rates in multiple species were positively associated with mean ambient temperatures at staging and breeding areas during spring. This supported my hypothesis that pre-nesting ice cover in key habitats limits breeding productivity by delaying breeding phenology and causing declines in female body condition. Surf scoter recruitment had a strong negative association with great gray owl irruptive migrations, suggesting surf scoters experience intensified predation pressure during low phases of vole population cycles and incur lower nest and brood survival rates. North Atlantic Oscillation patterns and staging area mean ambient temperatures in autumn showed associations with sea duck recruitment, suggesting harsh weather conditions post-fledging may precipitate early migratory movements that reduce juvenile survival rates or elicit greater proportions of adult sea ducks in subsequent harvests. My findings highlight important relationships between sea duck annual recruitment and ecological factors that may have considerable consequences for sea duck populations as ecosystems and climatic patterns undergo significant changes in the future.