Identifying important foraging sites for highly mobile marine predators has relied mainly on relating their distributions to broadly defined habitat data. However, understanding functional dependencies on foraging sites also requires knowledge of the relative contributions of foods to predator condition. We coupled predator distributions with measures of their diet and condition to assess the importance of Pacific herring Clupea pallasii spawning events to 2 closely related and declining sea duck species. In Puget Sound, Washington, the numerical response of scoters to spawn increased with increasing biomass of spawning herring; this response was 4-fold greater for surf scoters Melanitta perspicillata than for white-winged scoters M. fusca after accounting for local differences in their abundances. In the Strait of Georgia, British Columbia, diets estimated from fatty acids and stable isotopes indicated that both scoter species gained mass by consuming spawn during late March to early April. At a site without spawn during this period, only male white-winged scoters gained mass. In contrast, body mass of male surf scoters declined appreciably before spawn became available in one study year, suggesting greater dependence on spawn for restoring depleted reserves. From winter to spring, surf scoters attained greatest body mass during late April to mid-May while migrating through southeast Alaska; during this period, plasma triglycerides suggested that fattening was not related solely to spawn consumption, yet surf scoters aggregated to consume spawn whenever it was available. Although it is not clear whether herring are essential to their population processes, surf scoters and a range of other predators for which spawning areas are clearly preferred foraging sites would likely benefit from efforts that preserve declining herring stocks.
To migrate successfully, birds need to store adequate fat reserves to fuel each leg of the journey. Migrants acquire their fuel reserves at stopover sites; this often entails exposure to predators. Therefore, the safety attributes of sites may be as important as the feeding opportunities. Furthermore, site choice might depend on fuel load, with lean birds more willing to accept danger to obtain good feeding. Here, we evaluate the factors underlying stopover-site usage by migrant Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) on a landscape scale. We measured the food and danger attributes of 17 potential stopover sites in the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound region. We used logistic regression models to test whether food, safety, or both were best able to predict usage of these sites by Western Sandpipers. Eight of the 17 sites were used by sandpipers on migration. Generally, sites that were high in food and safety were used, whereas sites that were low in food and safety were not. However, dangerous sites were used if there was ample food abundance, and sites with low food abundance were used if they were safe. The model including both food and safety best-predicted site usage by sandpipers. Furthermore, lean sandpipers used the most dangerous sites, whereas heavier birds (which do not need to risk feeding in dangerous locations) used safer sites. This study demonstrates that both food and danger attributes are considered by migrant birds when selecting stopover sites, thus both these attributes should be considered to prioritize and manage stopover sites for conservation.
Feeding by gray whales Eschrichtius robustus along the eastern Pacific coast between the Bering Sea and Baja, Mexico, appears to be increasing. Gray whale feeding can disturb large fractions of intertidal and shallow subtidal sediments, altering the distributions of benthic invertebrates for many months. Increased gray whale feeding may be modifying foraging profitability for other bottom-feeding vertebrates along the coast, but such effects have not been documented. This paper is the first report of a feeding association between a cetacean and bottom-feeding birds, namely a migrating gray whale and diving sea ducks. Local counts and condition of surf scoters Melanitta perspicillata in Puget Sound, Washington, suggest that gray whale feeding can provide important foraging opportunities for scoters during spring, when other foods may have declined and requirements to prepare for migration and reproduction are high. Complementary data are needed to evaluate the importance to scoters of this seasonal interaction with gray whales. However, given the large and protracted impacts of gray whales on benthic communities, our observations suggest that whale feeding may have increasing influence on the foraging patterns and trophic relations of a range of bottom-feeding vertebrates.
Foraging profitability can be strongly affected by the size structure of different prey, so that predator distributions are not a simple function of total prey biomass. For a bottom-feeding avian predator, the surf scoter Melanitta perspicillata, we assessed effects of prey size and other prey attributes on seasonal shifts in scoter use of 2 major foraging habitats in Puget Sound, Washington, USA. During early winter, many thousands of scoters fed at an unvegetated site where profitable prey appeared limited to mussels Mytilus trossulus of smaller sizes (2 to 30 mm) despite their much lower biomass relative to larger mussels and several other prey types. Accordingly, scoter numbers decreased at that site as small mussels declined over winter. During pre-migratory fattening in spring and feather molt in summer, >8000 surf scoters aggregated at a seagrass site where they fed mainly on epifaunal crustaceans (50 to 73%) and gastropods (12 to 27%). Body sizes of most crustacean prey had increased substantially since winter. Thus, prey size had opposite effects on the profitability of unvegetated habitats that provide mainly mussels (smaller items likely reduce shell processing costs) versus seagrass crustaceans (larger items are likely more visible and yield greater energy per prey item, although relative mobility of prey can alter their value). Total prey biomass, and prey distributions relative to water and sediment depths, appeared less important than prey size to shifts in scoter diets and numbers. Our synthesis of past studies indicates that biomass and production of mussel beds are typically an order of magnitude greater than for entire assemblages of seagrass macroinvertebrates. However, because of seasonal shifts in prey size structure, seagrass sites can be an important complement to mussel beds when the narrow size fraction of mussels that are profitable to scoters declines.