Changes in habitat use and density

Changes in habitat use and nesting density in a declining seabird colony.
Ginger A. Rebstock, P. Dee Boersma, Pablo García-Borboroglu

Seabirds in expanding colonies select the highest-quality nesting habitat, but habitat selection has seldom been studied in declining colonies. We studied a colony of Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) that declined from 314,000 active nests in 1987 to 201,000 in 2014. As expected, nest quality and reproductive success were higher in burrow habitats than in other habitats, and nest density decreased with distance from shore. Contrary to predictions, the steepest declines did not occur in the poorest-quality habitat (scrub) or near the inland colony edge and the colony area did not shrink. In agreement with predictions, penguins shifted from nests with less cover to nests with more cover. The highest nest densities and the steepest declines were in habitats of large bushes and bush clusters. As the population declined penguins abandoned nests on the edges of large bushes. Constraints on penguin habitat-use changes include strong area and nest-site fidelity, increased avian predation in high-density areas, soil characteristics, and the costs of making and maintaining nests. Contrary to conventional wisdom we found low-density, poor-quality scrub habitat (which covers >70 % of the colony area) contained 45 % of active nests, produced 44 % of fledglings, and was as important as high-quality habitat for reproductive output. Our research shows that all habitats in a declining colony of seabirds have value for conservation.