MEPS 283:279-292 (2004)  -  doi:10.3354/meps283279

Spatial aggregations of seabirds and their prey on the continental shelf off SW Vancouver Island

Alan E. Burger1,*, Christine L. Hitchcock2, Gail K. Davoren3,4

1Department of Biology, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia V8W 3N5, Canada 2Department of Medicine, Division of Endocrinology, #380-575 W 8th Ave, Vancouver, British Columbia V5Z 1C6, Canada 3Cognitive and Behavioural Ecology Programme, Departments of Biology and Psychology, Memorial University, St John’s, Newfoundland A1B 3X9, Canada 4Present address: Department of Zoology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2, Canada

ABSTRACT: We investigated the spatial scales at which seabirds aggregate and associate with prey over the continental shelf off southwest Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Bird densities and hydroacoustic measures of prey abundance were recorded in all seasons from 1993 to 1995 from a vessel moving along fixed strip transects (mean distance 93 km; minimum spatial units 250 m). We used the neighbour K analysis to determine the spatial scale (patch radius) and number of birds (crowding) associated with aggregations of birds. Birds were grouped into 3 guilds: divers (dominated by common murres Uria aalge and other alcids), surface-feeders (dominated by California gulls Larus californicus and other gulls) and shearwaters (mainly sooty shearwaters Puffinus griseus). Flying birds occurred in smaller aggregations spread over a wider area than birds on the water. For birds on the water, patch radii were usually 2 to 8 km, and crowding averaged 574, 143 and 50 birds per patch for surface-feeders, shearwaters and divers, respectively. Patch radii showed few significant differences among bird species and guilds, and remained relatively constant throughout the year for most species, despite large seasonal changes in density and mean crowding. Abundance of prey (small schooling fish and euphausiids) was highest in the upper 10 m, declining progressively with deeper depths and showed marked seasonal trends (mean scores 4 to 5× higher in summer than in winter). Significant associations between birds and prey were usually within patch radii of 2 to 8 km. The appropriate scale to map and monitor seabirds and seabird-prey associations, for oil spill assessments and other reasons, would therefore be 1 to 10 km.

KEY WORDS: Spatial distribution · Seabirds · Predator-prey interactions · Scale · Vancouver Island · Continental shelf · Foraging guilds

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