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Distribution, abundance, and breeding activities of the Least Bell's Vireo at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California—2020 annual report

June 20, 2024
Executive Summary

The purpose of this report is to provide the Marine Corps with an annual summary of abundance, breeding activity, demography, and habitat use of endangered Least Bell’s Vireos (Vireo bellii pusillus) at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton (MCBCP, or Base). Surveys for the Least Bell's Vireo were conducted at MCBCP, California, between April 1 and July 10, 2020. Core survey areas and a subset of non-core areas in drainages containing riparian habitat suitable for vireos were surveyed 3–4 times. We detected 669 territorial male vireos and 16 transient vireos in core survey areas. An additional 156 territorial male vireos were detected in non-core survey areas. Territorial vireos were detected on all 10 drainages/sites surveyed (core and non-core areas). Of the vireo territories in core areas, 88 percent were on the 4 most populated drainages, with the Santa Margarita River containing 69 percent of all territories. In core areas, 79 percent of male vireos were confirmed as paired; 83 percent of male vireos in non-core areas were confirmed as paired.

The number of documented Least Bell’s Vireo territories in core survey areas on MCBCP (669) increased 39 percent from 2019 to 2020. The number of territories in all core survey area drainages increased by one or more between 2019 and 2020. The substantial increase in vireo numbers on MCBCP (39 percent) was consistent with population changes in surrounding areas, including the lower San Luis Rey River (26 percent), Marine Corps Air Station, Camp Pendleton (58 percent), and the middle San Luis Rey River (7 percent).

Most core-area vireo territories (69 percent of males) occurred in willow (Salix spp.) riparian habitat. An additional 4 percent of birds occupied willow habitat co-dominated by Western sycamores (Platanus racemosa) or Fremont cottonwoods (Populus fremontii). Eighteen percent of territories were found in riparian scrub dominated by mule fat (Baccharis salicifolia) or sandbar willow (S. exigua). Upland scrub was used by 7 percent or fewer vireos; 1 percent of territories occurred in non-native vegetation, and less than 1 percent of vireo territories occurred in habitat co-dominated by coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and sycamore.

In 2019, MCBCP began operating an artificial seep along the Santa Margarita River. The artificial seep pumped water to the surface from March through August each year during daylight hours and was designed to increase the amount of surface water present to enhance Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus; flycatcher) breeding habitat. Although this enhancement was designed to benefit flycatchers, few flycatchers have inhabited the seep and proposed seep areas within the past several years. Therefore, vireos were selected as a surrogate species to determine effects of the habitat enhancement. This report presents preliminary analyses of vireo and vegetation response to the existing artificial seep.

We sampled vegetation in the Seep site and three Reference sites to determine the effects of a new water diversion dam that was completed in 2019 and a surface water enhancement seep pump installed along the Santa Margarita River. We found minor differences in non-native vegetation cover between Reference sites and the Seep site. However, soil moisture was higher at the Reference sites compared to the Seep site. The effect of the seep pump may have been masked by high precipitation in the bio-year (July 1‒June 30) before 2020, limited time for the water diversion to have an effect, well-draining soil, and the non-operation of two to three of the six seep outlets.

We color banded and resighted color banded Least Bell’s Vireos to evaluate adult site fidelity, between-year movement, and the effect of surface water enhancement on vireo site fidelity and between-year movement. We banded 146 Least Bell's Vireos for the first time during the 2020 season. Birds banded included 27 adult vireos and 119 juvenile vireos. All adult vireos were banded with unique color combinations. The juvenile vireos (all nestlings) were banded with a single gold numbered federal band on the left leg.

We resighted and identified 85 Least Bell's Vireos banded before the 2020 breeding season on Base in 2020. Of the 85, 13 vireos were originally banded on the San Luis Rey River, 2 were banded in Baja California Sur, 1 was banded at Marine Corps Air Station, Camp Pendleton, and the remaining birds were banded at MCBCP. Adult birds of known age ranged from 1 to 8 years old.

Most returning adult vireos showed strong between-year site fidelity. Of the adults present in 2019 and 2020, 74 percent, (79 percent of males; 40 percent of females) returned to within 100 m of their previous territory. The average between-year movement for returning adult vireos was 0.3 plus or minus (±) 0.8 kilometer (km). The average movement of first-year vireos detected in 2020 that fledged from a known nest on MCBCP in 2019 was 4.7±7.0 km. One first-year vireo that originated at MCBCP moved off Base and was detected at Murrieta Creek, 23.0 km from his natal territory.

We monitored Least Bell's Vireo pairs to evaluate the effects of surface water enhancement on nest success and breeding productivity. Vireos were monitored at one Seep site and three Reference sites. Base personnel plan to install a second seep pump at one of the Reference sites in the future, at which time the status of the monitoring site will change from Reference to Seep.

Nesting activity was monitored between March 31 and July 28 in 52 territories within the Seep and Reference sites (12 at the Seep site and 40 at Reference sites). All territories were occupied by pairs, and all but one territory was fully monitored, meaning all nesting attempts were monitored at these territories. One vireo territory within a Reference site was partially monitored. During the monitoring period, 94 nests (25 in the Seep site and 69 in Reference sites) were monitored.

Breeding productivity was similar at the Seep site and Reference sites (3.7 and 2.9 young per pair, respectively), with 75 percent of Seep pairs and 79 percent of Reference pairs successfully fledging at least 1 young in 2020. Compared to Reference sites, the Seep site had a higher proportion of all eggs that hatched and also a higher proportion of nests with eggs that hatched. Conversely, a lower proportion of hatchlings and nests that had hatchlings fledged at the Seep site than at Reference sites. According to the best model, nest survival in 2020 was not affected by treatment (Seep versus Reference), although the second best model that included treatment was also well supported.

Completed nests at the Seep site were likely to be as successful as nests at Reference sites in 2020 (57 percent and 59 percent, respectively). Predation was believed to be the primary source of nest failure at both sites. Predation accounted for 90 percent and 73 percent of nest failures at Seep and Reference sites, respectively. Failure of the remaining eight nests was attributed to the collapse of the nesting substrate, exposure to rain and flooding, and other unknown reasons.

Fourteen plant species were used as hosts for vireo nests in 2020. In 2020, we found that at the Seep site, successful nests were placed in taller host plants and further from the edge of host plants (closer to the center) than unsuccessful nests. We found no difference in nest placement between the Seep site and the Reference sites.

Publication Year 2024
Title Distribution, abundance, and breeding activities of the Least Bell's Vireo at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California—2020 annual report
DOI 10.3133/ofr20241009
Authors Suellen Lynn, Michelle Treadwell, Barbara E. Kus
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2024-1009
Index ID ofr20241009
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center