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Mercury bioaccumulation and risk to three waterbird foraging guilds is influenced by foraging ecology and breeding stage

January 1, 2009

We evaluated mercury (Hg) in five waterbird species representing three foraging guilds in San Francisco Bay, CA. Fish-eating birds (Forster's and Caspian terns) had the highest Hg concentrations in thier tissues, but concentrations in an invertebrate-foraging shorebird (black-necked stilt) were also elevated. Foraging habitat was important for Hg exposure as illustrated by within-guild differences, where species more associated with marshes and salt ponds had higher concentrations than those more associated with open-bay and tidal mudflats. Importantly, Hg concentrations increased with time spent in the estuary. Surf scoter concentrations tripled over six months, whereas Forster's terns showed an up to 5-fold increase between estuary arrival and breeding. Breeding waterbirds were at elevated risk of Hg-induced reproductive impairment, particularly Forster's terns, in which 48% of breeding birds were at high risk due to their Hg??levels. Our results highlight the importance of habitat and exposure timing, in addition to trophic position, on waterbird Hg bioaccumulation and risk.