Spatial modeling over broad scales can potentially direct conservation efforts to areas with high species-specific abundances. We examined the performance of regional models for predicting bird abundance at spatial scales typically addressed in conservation planning. Specifically, we used point count data on wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) and blue-winged warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) from 2 time periods (1995-1998 and 2006-2007) to evaluate the ability of regional models derived via Bayesian hierarchical techniques to predict bird abundance. We developed models for each species within Bird Conservation Region (BCR) 23 in the upper midwestern United States at 800-ha, 8,000-ha, and approximately 80,000-ha scales. We obtained count data from the Breeding Bird Survey and land cover data from the National Land Cover Dataset (1992). We evaluated predictions from the best models, as defined by an information-theoretic criterion, using point count data collected within an ecological subregion of BCR 23 at 131 count stations in the 1990s and again in 2006-2007. Competing (Deviance Information Criteria <5) blue-winged warbler models accounted for 67% of the variability and suggested positive associations with forest edge and proportion of forest at the 8,000-ha scale, and negative associations with forest patch area (800 ha) and wetness (800 ha and 80,000 ha). The regional model performed best for blue-winged warbler predicted abundances from point counts conducted in Iowa during 1995-1996 (rs = 0.57; P = 0.14), the survey period that most closely aligned with the time period of data used for regional model construction. Wood thrush models exhibited positive correlations with point count data for all survey areas and years combined (rs = 0.58, P ≤ 0.001). In comparison, blue-winged warbler models performed worse as time increased between the point count surveys and vintage of the model building data (rs = 0.03, P = 0.92 for Iowa and rs = 0.13, P = 0.51 for all areas, 2006-2007), likely related to the ephemeral nature of their preferred early successional habitat. Species abundance and sensitivity to changing habitat conditions seems to be an important factor in determining the predictive ability of regional models. Hierarchical models can be a useful tool for concentrating efforts at the scale of management units and should be one of many tools used by land managers, but we caution that the utility of such models may decrease over time for species preferring relatively ephemeral habitats if model inputs are not updated accordingly.
Additional publication details
Evaluating the ability of regional models to predict local avian abundance