We studied seasonal and physiological influences on mercury concentrations in western grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis) and Clark's grebes (A. occidentalis) across 29 lakes and reservoirs in California, USA. Additionally, at three of these lakes, we conducted a time series study, in which we repeatedly sampled grebe blood mercury concentrations during the spring, summer, and early fall. Grebe blood mercury concentrations were higher among males (0.61 ± 0.12 μg/g ww) than females (0.52 ± 0.10 μg/g ww), higher among Clark's grebes (0.58 ± 0.12 μg/g ww) than western grebes (0.51 ± 0.10 μg/g ww), and exhibited a strong seasonal pattern (decreasing by 60% from spring to fall). Grebe blood THg concentrations exhibited a shallow, inverse U-shaped pattern with body size, and was lowest among the smallest and largest grebes. Further, the relationship between grebe blood mercury concentrations and wing primary feather molt exhibited a shallow U-shaped pattern, where mercury concentrations were highest among birds that had not yet begun molting, decreased approximately 24% between pre-molt and late molt, and increased approximately 19% from late molt to post-molt. Because grebes did not begin molting until mid-summer, lower grebe blood mercury concentrations observed in late summer and early fall were consistent with the onset of primary feather molt. However, because sampling date was a much stronger predictor of grebe mercury concentrations than molt, other seasonally changing environmental factors likely played a larger role than molt in the seasonal variation in grebe mercury concentrations. In the time series study, we found that seasonal trends in grebe mercury concentrations were not consistent among lakes, indicating that lake-specific variation in mercury dynamics influence the overall seasonal decline in grebe blood mercury concentrations. These results highlight the importance of accounting for sampling date, as well as ecological processes that may influence mercury concentrations, when developing monitoring programs to assess site-specific exposure risk of mercury to wildlife.
Additional publication details
Season, molt, and body size influence mercury concentrations in grebes