MEPS prepress abstract  -  DOI:

Selective occupancy of a persistent yet variable coastal river plume by two seabird species

Elizabeth M. Phillips*, John K. Horne, Josh Adams, Jeannette E. Zamon


ABSTRACT: Advances in telemetry and modeling of physical processes expand opportunities to assess relationships between marine predators and their dynamic habitat. The Columbia River plume (CRP) attracts sooty shearwaters Ardenna grisea and common murres Uria aalge, but how seabirds respond to variability in plume waters is unknown. We characterized seabird distributions in relation to hourly, daily, monthly, and seasonal variation in CRP location and surface area by attaching satellite telemetry tags to shearwaters in 2008 and 2009, and to murres in 2012 and 2013. We matched seabird locations to surface salinity from a high-resolution hydrodynamic model of the CRP and adjacent waters. Utilization distributions indicated high-use areas north of the Columbia River mouth and in continental shelf waters. Shearwater and murre occupancy of tidal (<21 practical salinity units [psu]), recirculating (21–26 psu), and boundary (26–31 psu) plume waters was on average 31% greater than expected and positively correlated with CRP surface area. Seabird latitude was positively correlated with latitude of the geographic center of the CRP, indicating that birds move in phase with the plume. We detected a threshold response of seabirds to plume size, and birds were closer to the convergent CRP boundary (28 psu isohaline) after a surface area threshold between 1500–4000 km2 was exceeded. We conclude that shearwaters and murres selectively occupy and track plume waters, particularly dynamic boundary waters (26–31 psu) where foraging opportunities may be enhanced by increases in surface area and associated biophysical coupling that aggregates zooplankton and attracts prey fishes.