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Spatio-temporal population change of Arctic-breeding waterbirds on the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska

June 1, 2019

Rapid physical changes that are occurring in the Arctic are primary drivers of landscape change and thus may drive population dynamics of Arctic-breeding birds. Despite the importance of this region to breeding and molting waterbirds, lack of a comprehensive analysis of historic data has hindered quantifying avian population change. We estimated distribution, abundance, and spatially explicit population trend of 20 breeding waterbird species using 25 years (1992–2016) of aerial survey data collected on the Arctic Coastal Plain (ACP), Alaska. The ACP is an extensive wetland complex on Alaska’s North Slope that supports millions of breeding waterbirds and includes portions of the National Petroleum Reserve—Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We summarized annual counts into approximately 6-km by 6-km grid cells and analyzed data with generalized linear mixed models that accounted for survey timing and spatio-temporal autocorrelation. Geese and swans were most abundant along the coast between Admiralty Bay and Prudhoe Bay. Sea ducks, generalist predators (i.e., jaeger, gulls, terns), and loons were most abundant between Utqiaġvik and Point Lay, Alaska. Important areas for most species included the coastal fringe near Teshekpuk Lake, the Colville River Delta, and Admiralty Bay. The National Petroleum Reserve—Alaska was an important area for all species examined. Conversely, density on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was greater than average for 20% of species. Annual population growth rates over the 25-year survey period were variable: 13 increased (range: 1.4%–13.8%), one decreased (-3.4%), and six were stable. However, even species with no overall population trend had areas of changing population size, suggesting localized conditions affected waterbird distributions on the ACP. Our results can be used to better inform land use decisions, improve monitoring of waterbird populations, and increase understanding of avian response to ecological change in the Arctic.

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