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Long-distance flights and high-risk breeding by nomadic waterbirds on desert salt lakes
journal contributionposted on 2017-10-05, 00:00 authored by Reece Pedler, Raoul RibotRaoul Ribot, Andy Bennett
Understanding and conserving mobile species presents complex challenges, especially for animals in stochastic or changing environments. Nomadic waterbirds must locate temporary water in arid biomes where rainfall is highly unpredictable in space and time. To achieve this they need to travel over vast spatial scales and time arrival to exploit pulses in food resources. How they achieve this is an enduring mystery. We investigated these challenges in the colonial-nesting Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus), a nomadic shorebird of conservation concern. Hitherto, Banded Stilts were hypothesized to have only 1-2 chances to breed during their long lifetime, when flooding rain fills desert salt lakes, triggering mass-hatching of brine shrimp. Over 6 years, we satellite tagged 57 individuals, conducted 21 aerial surveys to detect nesting colonies on 14 Australian desert salt lakes, and analyzed 3 decades of Landsat and MODIS satellite imagery to quantify salt-lake flood frequency and extent. Within days of distant inland rainfall, Banded Stilts flew 1,000-2,000 km to reach flooded salt lakes. On arrival, females laid over half their body weight in eggs. We detected nesting episodes across the species' range at 7 times the frequency reported during the previous 80 years. Nesting colonies of thousands formed following minor floods, yet most were subsequently abandoned when the water rapidly evaporated prior to egg hatching. Satellite imagery revealed twice as many flood events sufficient for breeding-colony initiation as recorded colonies, suggesting that nesting at remote sites has been underdetected. Individuals took risk on uncertain breeding opportunities by responding to frequent minor flood events between infrequent extensive flooding, exemplifying the extreme adaptability and trade-offs of species exploiting unstable environments. The conservation challenges of nest predation by overabundant native gulls and anthropogenic modifications to salt lakes filling frequencies require investigation, as do the physiological and navigational mechanisms that enable such extreme strategies.