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Least Bell's Vireos and Southwestern Willow Flycatchers at the San Luis Rey Flood Risk Management Project Area in San Diego County, California—Breeding activities and habitat use—2022 annual report

June 29, 2023

Executive Summary

We completed four protocol surveys for Least Bell’s Vireos (Vireo bellii pusillus; vireo) during the breeding season, supplemented by weekly territory monitoring visits. We identified a total of 133 territorial male vireos; 114 were confirmed as paired, and 3 were confirmed as single males. For the remaining 16 territories, we were unable to confirm breeding status. Two transient vireos were detected in 2022. The vireo population in the Project Area increased by 9 percent from 2021 to 2022. The vireo population at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton also increased (4 percent), whereas the population at Marine Corps Air Station remained relatively stable (decreased from 10 pairs to 9) and the Otay River population decreased by 10 percent (2 territories).

We used an index of treatment (Treatment Index) to evaluate the effect of on-going vegetation clearing on the Project Area vireo population. The Treatment Index measures the cumulative effect of vegetation treatment within a territory (since 2005) by using the percentage area treated weighted by the number of years since treatment. We determined that the Treatment Index for unoccupied habitat was more than four times that of occupied habitat, indicating that vireos selected habitat that was less treated in which to settle.

We monitored vireo nests at three general site types: (1) within the flood channel where exotic and native vegetation removal has occurred regularly (Channel), (2) three sites near the flood channel where limited exotic and native vegetation removal has occurred (Off-channel), and (3) three sites that have been actively restored by planting native vegetation (Restoration). Nesting activity was monitored in 80 territories, 3 of which were occupied by single males and 1 by a male whose breeding status could not be confirmed. Overall, 38 percent of completed nests were successful and nest success did not differ among the three sites. In 2022, there were no differences with regard to clutch size, hatching, or fledging success among Channel, Off-channel and Restoration sites. Overall breeding success and productivity were slightly higher in 2022 than in 2021, with 72 percent of pairs fledgling at least one young and pairs fledging an average of 2.2±1.7 young.

To investigate if the cumulative years of treatment had an effect on vireo reproductive effort, we looked at the effects of the Treatment Index on reproductive parameters. Results from generalized linear models indicated that treatment did not have an effect on vireo nesting effort or the number of vireo fledglings per pair produced in 2022. Similarly, we did not detect an effect of Treatment Index on daily survival rate (DSR) of nests.

Analysis of vegetation data collected at vireo nests from 2006 to 2022 did not reveal an effect of vegetation cover at the nest on DSR. We did find, however, that Channel nests were placed higher in the host plant than Off-channel nests. In the Channel and Off-channel sites, successful nests were placed closer to the edge of the host plants than unsuccessful nests. Additionally, successful Off-channel nests were placed lower in the vegetation, in shorter host plants, and closer to the edge of the vegetation clump than unsuccessful nests.

Red/arroyo willow (Salix laevigata or Salix lasiolepis) were the species most commonly selected for nesting by vireos in all three site types. Black willow (Salix gooddingii) and mule fat (Baccharis salicifolia) also were commonly used. Vireos used a wider variety of species for nesting in Channel and Off-channel sites (eight and six species, respectively) compared to Restoration sites (two species), although there was limited nesting in Restoration sites in 2022.

There were 43 vireos banded before the 2022 breeding season that were resighted and identified at the Project Area in 2022, all of which were originally banded in the Project Area. Adult birds of known age ranged from 1 to 7 years old. A total of 146 vireos were newly banded in 2022. There were 8 adult vireos banded with a unique color combination, and 138 nestlings were banded with a single dark blue numbered federal band on the left leg. Between 2006 and 2022, survivorship of males (66±11 percent) was consistently higher than that of females (59±12 percent). First-year birds from 2006 to 2022 had an average annual survivorship of 15±6 percent.

First-year dispersal in 2022 averaged 6.7±7.4 kilometers (km), with the longest dispersal (15.3 km) by a male that was recaptured at Fallbrook Creek, Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station (FNWS). From 2007 to 2011, most returning first-year vireos returned to the Project Area, whereas from 2014 to 2016, the majority of returning birds dispersed to areas outside of the Project Area. From 2018 to 2021, the trend shifted, and more first-year vireos returned to the Project area. In 2022, only one first-year vireo returned to the project area and two dispersed to sites outside the Project Area (upstream to the middle San Luis Rey River and to Fallbrook Creek, FNWS). However, the total number of identified first-year vireos was low and the trend in 2022 will likely shift as additional returning first-year vireos are identified in subsequent years.

Most of the returning adult male vireos showed strong between-year site fidelity to their previous territories. Seventy-three percent of males (27/37) occupied a territory in 2022 that they had defended in 2021 (within 100 meters [m]). There were no females (0/4) detected in 2022 that returned to a territory they occupied in 2021; however, 50 percent of females (2/4) detected in 2022 returned to areas adjacent to their previous territories (within 300 m). The average between-year movement for returning adult vireos was 0.3±0.7 km. The amount of treatment at adults’ 2021 territories did not affect the distance adults moved to their 2022 territories.

We completed four protocol surveys for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus; flycatcher) at the Project Area between May 16 and July 25, 2022. Four transient Willow Flycatchers were detected in the Project Area in 2022. Two transients were detected in Reach 1, one in Reach 3a, and one in Pilgrim Pond. There were not any resident flycatchers documented in the Project Area in 2022.

A total of 46 vegetation transects (528 points) were sampled at the Project Area in 2022. Seventy-one percent (378/528) of points were located in the Channel, and 22 percent (115/528) were in Upper Pond. The remaining 7 percent (35/528) of points were at the Whelan Restoration site. Foliage cover below 2 m was higher at the Channel points compared to Upper Pond and Whelan Restoration, which can be attributed to the dense herbaceous vegetation that grows after mowing. Above 2 m, foliage cover was similar at the Channel and Whelan Restoration sites and was higher than at Upper Pond. Average canopy height was higher in the Channel (5.6±3.4 m) compared to Upper Pond (4.7±2.9 m) and Whelan Restoration (4.6±1.9 m). From 2006 to 2022, total foliage cover declined above 2 m in the Channel, in contrast to Upper Pond and Whelan Restoration, where little directional change in vegetation cover has occurred and where vegetation cover has largely recovered to 2006 levels. Within the Channel, the steepest declines occurred between 2009 and 2013 and between 2014 and 2016. Since 2016, we observed an increase in foliage cover, largely herbaceous, between 0 and 2 m within the Channel. The percent cover remained below levels detected before 2009 for other height classes.

We sampled vegetation at 44 vireo nests and 44 random plots (“territory” plots) within territories in the Channel and Upper Pond after the 2022 breeding season. Vireos in the Channel established territories in areas with significantly more cover from 3 to 6 m but less cover below 2 m relative to the available habitat. Within territories, Channel vireos selected nest sites with significantly more foliage cover from 2 to 3 m. Vireos at Upper Pond established territories in areas with significantly more foliage cover from 5 to 6 m and below 1 m relative to available habitat. However, within territories, Upper Pond vireos selected nest sites with significantly less foliage cover from 5 to 6 m and below 1 m.

Data either are not available or have limited availability owing to restrictions of the funding entity (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). Please contact Christopher Chabot, Planning Division, Los Angeles District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for more information.

Publication Year 2023
Title Least Bell's Vireos and Southwestern Willow Flycatchers at the San Luis Rey Flood Risk Management Project Area in San Diego County, California—Breeding activities and habitat use—2022 annual report
DOI 10.3133/ofr20231040
Authors Alexandra Houston, Lisa D. Allen, Shannon M. Mendia, Barbara E. Kus
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2023-1040
Index ID ofr20231040
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center