We developed a Markov process model for colony site dynamics of Gull-billed Terns (Sterna nilotica) in coastal Virginia. We used the model and data on colony site occupation from 1993 to 1996 to estimate model parameters. Each year, we monitored the breeding numbers of Gull-billed Terns and their frequent colony associates, Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) and Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) at colony sites along about 80 km of the barrier island region of Virginia. We also monitored flooding events and renesting. We developed the model for colony survival, extinction, and recolonization at potential colony sites over the four-year period. We then used data on annual site occupation by Gull-billed Terns to estimate model parameters and test between different structures reflecting competing hypotheses. Results revealed a dynamic system, but provided no evidence that the dynamics were Markovian , i.e. the probability of occupancy of a site in one year was not influenced by whether it had been occupied the previous year. Nor did the colony-level reproductive success the previous season seem to affect the probability of site occupancy. Site survival and recolonization rates were similar, and the overall annual probability of a site being occupied over the course of the four-year period was estimated to be 0.59 Of the total of 25 sites that were used during the four-year period, 16 were used in only one or two years while only three were used all four years.. Flooding and renesting were frequent in both habitat types in all years. The frequent flooding of nests on shellpiles argues for more effective management; augmentation with shell and sand to increase elevations as little as 20 cm could have reduced flooding at a number of sites. The low colony-site fidelity we demonstrate suggests that an effective management approach is to provide a large number of alternative sand and/or shellpile sites that the terns may use. Sites not used one year may still be used in subsequent years.
Additional publication details
Modeling colony site dynamics: a case study of gull-billed terns (Sterna nilotica) in coastal Virginia