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Endangered Species Research

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ESR 39:191-206 (2019)  -  DOI:

Improving population estimates of threatened spectacled eiders: correcting aerial counts for visibility bias

Tyler L. Lewis1,3,*, Michael A. Swaim2, Joel A. Schmutz1, Julian B. Fischer2

1US Geological Survey, Alaska Science Center, Anchorage, Alaska 99508, USA
2US Fish and Wildlife Service, Migratory Bird Management, Anchorage, Alaska 99503, USA
3Present address: Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation, Anchorage, Alaska 99518, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Listed as ‘threatened’ under the US Endangered Species Act in 1993, the spectacled eider Somateria fischeri population in western Alaska, USA, has since rebounded, prompting an assessment of their suitability for delisting. This assessment, however, is limited by aerial-based population estimates that are incompletely corrected for unobserved eiders. Notably, aerial counts of eiders are corrected with a visibility correction factor (VCF), calculated as the ratio of ground-based nest counts to aerial pair counts, which disregards spatial variation in eider density. Accordingly, we (1) stratified our study area into zones of low, medium, and high eider density, (2) developed density-adjusted VCFs for each stratum, (3) evaluated the influence of several ecological factors on VCFs, and (4) estimated eider population size using our density-adjusted VCFs. For the low-density stratum, we estimated a VCF (± SE) of 1.35 ± 0.15, indicating that aerial counts of eider pairs closely matched ground counts of nests. In medium and high-density strata, VCFs increased to 2.46 ± 0.17 and 3.09 ± 0.19, respectively, suggesting that aerial detection decreased as eider densities increased. VCFs also increased for surveys that occurred late relative to nest initiation. Population estimates produced with our density-adjusted VCFs were 42% (5580 eiders) lower, on average, than those produced with the traditional VCF, which is currently used. Such large differences underscore the importance of accounting for density when correcting counts for incomplete detection, and, for threatened species such as spectacled eiders, may determine whether populations retain protected status.

KEY WORDS: Spectacled eider · Somateria fischeri · Detection · Stratification · Abundance · US Endangered Species Act

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Cite this article as: Lewis TL, Swaim MA, Schmutz JA, Fischer JB (2019) Improving population estimates of threatened spectacled eiders: correcting aerial counts for visibility bias. Endang Species Res 39:191-206.

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