I simulated the annual population cycles of Great Egrets (Ardea alba) at Lake Okeechobee, Florida, to provide a framework for evaluating the local population dynamics of nesting and foraging wading birds. The external forcing functions were solar energy, minimum air temperature, water depth, surface-water drying rate, and season. Solar input controlled the production of prey at moderate to high lake stages, but water area exerted primary control during a two-year drought. Modeling prey production as a linear function of water area resulted in underestimation of prey density during the drought, suggesting that prey organisms maintained high fecundity while concentrated in submerged vegetation at the lakeward fringe of the littoral zone. Simulation confirmed that large influxes of wading birds during the drought were the combined result of a regional refuge response and the availability of concentrated prey. Modeling immigration and emigration as primarily functions of the surface-water drying rate, rather than lake stage, resulted in a closer match of observed and simulated population trends for foraging birds, suggesting that the pattern of surface-water fluctuations was a more important factor than water depth. Simulation indicated an abrupt-threshold response rather than a linear association between foraging efficiency and low temperatures, which reduce activity levels of forage fishes. Great Egret breeder recruitment is primarily a function of prey availability, climate, and hydrologic trends, but simulation confirmed the concurrent involvement of a seasonal or physiological-readiness factor. An attractor function driven by high winter lake stages was necessary to reproduce observed patterns of breeder recruitment, suggesting that Great Egrets initiate nesting based on environmental cues that lead to peak food availability when nestlings are present. Poor correspondence of reproductive effort and nest productivity suggested that the drought compromised the birds' predictive abilities. The need to model breeder recruitment as a function of a maximum rate rather than the size of the local foraging population suggested that birds may nest on the lake even though on-lake foraging conditions are poor. Simulated and observed estimates of egg and hatching production did not match, suggesting that the causes of failure during incubation were complex or more localized than could be accounted for with lakewide hydrologic and climatic data. A forced increase in prey consumption of 12% was necessary to reproduce observed, high levels of nest productivity in 1990, which corresponded to the finding that panhandled fish constituted 10a??12% of the biomass fed to Great Egret nestlings that year.
Additional publication details
An energy-circuit population model for great egrets (Ardea alba) at Lake Okeechobee, Florida, U.S.A