Recent Paper: Standardizing American Oystercatcher Surveys

A new paper in The Condor discusses the advantages of coordinated bird monitoring effort and accounting of detectability in estimating population estimates.

From the announcement:

How do you monitor a vulnerable shorebird species when its breeding areas are scattered across lands managed by a patchwork of state agencies, federal agencies, and non-profit conservation groups? American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates) nests are sparsely distributed, time-intensive to find, and often in remote locations, all adding to the challenge of estimating the size of their breeding population. However, a new study in The Condor: Ornithological Applications demonstrates that a new, simplified survey method, coordinated across 8 agencies, has tremendous potential to provide accurate population estimates and aid in the species’ conservation. Rather than searching for and counting each individual nest, researchers recorded how many oystercatchers they observed within suitable nesting habitat and then modeled the size of the breeding population from this data.

Abstract: The extensive breeding range of many shorebird species can make integration of survey data problematic at regional spatial scales. We evaluated the effectiveness of standardized repeated count surveys coordinated across 8 agencies to estimate the abundance of American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) breeding pairs in the southeastern United States. Breeding season surveys were conducted across coastal North Carolina (90 plots) and the Eastern Shore of Virginia (3 plots). Plots were visited on 1–5 occasions during April–June 2013. N-mixture models were used to estimate abundance and detection probability in relation to survey date, tide stage, plot size, and plot location (coastal bay vs. barrier island). The estimated abundance of oystercatchers in the surveyed area was 1,048 individuals (95% credible interval: 851–1,408) and 470 pairs (384–637), substantially higher than estimates that did not account for detection probability (maximum counts of 674 individuals and 316 pairs). Detection probability was influenced by a quadratic function of survey date, and increased from mid-April (~0.60) to mid-May (~0.80), then remained relatively constant through June. Detection probability was also higher during high tide than during low, rising, or falling tides. Abundance estimates from N-mixture models were validated at 13 plots by exhaustive productivity studies (2–5 surveys wk−1). Intensive productivity studies identified 78 breeding pairs across 13 productivity plots while the N-mixture model abundance estimate was 74 pairs (62–119) using only 1–5 replicated surveys season−1. Our results indicate that standardized replicated count surveys coordinated across multiple agencies and conducted during a relatively short time window (closure assumption) provide tremendous potential to meet both agency-level (e.g., state) and regional-level (e.g., flyway) objectives in large-scale shorebird monitoring programs.

Citation: Nathan J. Hostetter, Beth Gardner, Sara H. Schweitzer, Ruth Boettcher, Alexandra L. Wilke, Lindsay Addison, William R. Swilling, Kenneth H. Pollock, and Theodore R. Simons (2015) Repeated count surveys help standardize multi-agency estimates of American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) abundance. The Condor: August 2015, Vol. 117, No. 3, pp. 354-363.