Using land-based surveys to assess sea duck abundance and behavior in nearshore waters of southern New England, USA


Nearshore waters provide very important habitat for sea ducks (Tribe Mergini) during migration and winter, but gathering information on sea duck use of shallow nearshore waters is challenging because traditional aerial and boat-based surveys are expensive, are usually conducted infrequently, and are often not feasible near the coast. The objective of this study was to use land-based surveys to characterize spatiotemporal variation in the abundance and behavior (e.g., foraging, flying) of Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) and scoters (Melanitta spp.) in nearshore waters of southern New England. Surveys (60–120 min per survey, n = 1,044 surveys) were conducted throughout the day from February 2009 to July 2010 to assess diurnal and seasonal variation in sea duck behavior and spatial distribution at nine sites in southern Rhode Island. The density of sea ducks resting or foraging on the water exhibited little diurnal variation, whereas flight activity dramatically increased nearer to sunrise. Sea duck densities and passage rates (individuals/km2/hr) peaked during migration periods from October through November and February through April, although there were important seasonal differences between sites. For example, the highest densities of Common Eider during fall were in a protected estuary, whereas abundance of scoters during fall was greater at a coastal headland. The relative activity of Common Eider on the water and in flight was similar among sites, whereas scoters exhibited highly variable activity among sites, particularly during winter and spring. The spatiotemporal patterns in abundance and behavior of sea ducks in nearshore waters that we detected using land-based surveys provides essential, complementary information to that available from other types of waterfowl and seabird surveys in southern New England.

Waterbirds 38:252-259