We examined the relationship between water levels and accessible habitat, and how accessible habitat influenced Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) numbers in managed wetlands at Pea Island (North Carolina) and Merritt Island (Florida) National Wildlife Refuges in 1998 and 1999. At Pea Island we experimentally manipulated water levels, which also allowed us to examine the effects of water level fluctuations on prey base. We examined these relationships because access to foraging habitat by shorebirds is positively related to the length of their tarsometatarsus, and in the southeastern United States, small calidrids are a numerically important component of the two million migrants using inland and managed wetlands. We confirmed the importance of shallow waters for Dunlin and Semipalmated Sandpiper-numbers increased with increasing availability of 0-4 cm habitat. At Merritt Island, Dunlin use was inversely related to variability in water depth of 0-4 cm. Minimizing the frequency and amplitude of water level fluctuations associated with single-capped culverts is necessary to improve habitat quality. After adjusting for accessibility, spring habitat requirements for Dunlin and Semipalmated Sandpiper at Pea Island were met under nearly all abundance scenarios. We identified water level targets that maximize accessible habitat at Pea Island. In contrast, winter habitat requirements for Dunlin at Merritt Island were not met except in one scenario. Seasonally low prey density contributed to the shortfall, suggesting that allocating more habitat is the primary management option. Manipulating water levels at Pea Island did not adversely affect the density of eight shorebird prey species. Estimates of accessible habitat and other parameters (e.g., turnover rates, prey biomass) are essential to set and implement realistic shorebird habitat conservation goals.
Additional publication details
Accessible habitat for shorebirds: Factors influencing its availability and conservation implications