Climate in low-latitude wintering areas may influence temperate and high-latitude breeding populations of birds, but demonstrations of such relationships have been rare because of difficulties in linking wintering with breeding populations. We used long-term aerial surveys in Mexican wintering areas and breeding areas in Alaska, USA, to assess numbers of Black Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans; hereafter brant) on their principal wintering and breeding area in El Niño and non-El Niño years. We used Pollock's robust design to directly estimate probability of breeding and apparent annual survival of individually marked brant at the Tutakoke River (TR) colony, Alaska, in each year between 1988 and 2001. Fewer brant wintered in Mexico during every El Niño event since 1965. Fewer brant were observed on the principal breeding area following each El Niño since surveys began in 1985. Probability of breeding was negatively related to January sea surface temperature along the subtropical coast of North America during the preceding winter. Between 23% (five-year-olds or older) and 30% (three-year-olds) fewer brant nested in 1998 following the strong El Niño event in the winter of 1997–1998 than in non-El Niño years. This finding is consistent with life history theory, which predicts that longer-lived species preserve adult survival at the expense of reproduction. Oceanographic conditions off Baja California, apparently by their effect on Zostera marina (eelgrass), strongly influence winter distribution of brant geese and their reproduction (but not survival), which in turn affects ecosystem dynamics in Alaska.
Additional publication details
Effects of El Niño on distribution and reproductive performance of Black Brant