ESR prepress abstract  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00959

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

Tyler L. Lewis*, Michael A. Swaim, Joel A. Schmutz, Julian B. Fischer

*Email: tyler.lewis@alaska.gov

ABSTRACT: Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, the spectacled eider Somateria fischeri population in western Alaska 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.