An estimated 80% of redheads (Aythya americana) winter on the Laguna Madre of south Texas and Mexico and feed almost exclusively on shoalgrass (Halodule wrightii) rhizomes. Shoalgrass abundance has decreased by 60% over the past 30 years, and because the effects of shoalgrass loss on wintering redheads are unknown, we initiated a study to define habitat selection criteria and document the effect of wintering redheads on shoalgrass in the lower Laguna Madre, Texas. Redheads consumed an average of 75% of shoalgrass rhizome biomass at collection sites each winter. When rhizome biomass was grazed to a mean biomass of ltoreq 0.18 g dry mass/core (approximately 10 g dry mass/ml), shoalgrass did not recover to its previous level the following growing season. Thirty-three percent of the sites (10) were grazed below 0.18 g dry mass/core during both years of the study, while 64% (19) were grazed below 0.18 g during 1 or the other of the 2 winters. Ramet number was positively correlated (P lt 0.001, r-2 = 0.54) with rhizome biomass; however, this relationship was influenced by grazing intensity. Heavy grazing reduced the amount of rhizome attached to each ramet compared with ungrazed ramets. Grazing had no effect on root biomass (P = 0.388), rhizome moisture content (P = 0.553), or soil magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium (P = 0.102, 0.499, 0.162, respectively). Redhead presence increased (P = 0.042) soil nitrogen levels. Foraging areas selected by redheads within the lower Laguna Madre had lower (P = 0.026) salinities (24 ppt) than areas not selected (35 ppt). Redheads did not select foraging areas in relation to crude protein levels in rhizomes. Shoalgrass habitat in the Laguna Madre should be protected from further losses and enhanced where possible.
Additional publication details
Herbivory on shoalgrass by wintering redheads in Texas