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Pinnipeds are often monitored by counting individuals at haul-out sites, but the often large numbers of densely packed individuals at these sites are difficult to enumerate accurately. Errors in enumeration can induce bias and reduce precision in estimates of population size and trend. We used data from paired observers monitoring walrus haul-outs in Bristol Bay, Alaska, to quantify observer variability and assess its relative importance. The probability of a pair of observers making identical counts was <0.1 for walrus groups with >50 individuals. Mean count differences ranged up to 25% for the largest counts, depending on beach and observers. In at least some cases, there was a clear tendency for counts of one observer to be consistently greater than counts of the other observer in a pair, indicating that counts of at least one of the observers were biased. These results suggest that efforts to improve accuracy of counts will be worthwhile. However, we also found that variation among observers was relatively small compared to variation among visits to a beach so that efforts to account for other sources of variation will be more important.
Additional Publication Details
Observer variability in pinniped counts: Ground-based enumeration of walruses at haul-out sites