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Characterising demographic contributions to observed population change in a declining migrant bird

ABSTRACT

Populations of Afro-Palearctic migrant birds have shown severe declines in recent decades. To identify the causes of these declines, accurate measures of both demographic rates (seasonal productivity, apparent survival, immigration) and environmental parameters will allow conservation and research actions to be targeted effectively. We used detailed observations of marked breeding birds from a ‘stronghold’ population of whinchats Saxicola rubetra in England (stable against the declining European trend) to reveal both on-site and external mechanisms that contribute to population change. From field data, a population model was developed based on demographic rates from 2011 to 2014. Observed population trends were compared to the predicted population trends to assess model-accuracy and the influence of outside factors, such as immigration. The sensitivity of the projected population growth rate to relative change in each demographic rate was also explored. Against expectations of high productivity, we identified low seasonal breeding success due to nocturnal predation and low apparent first-year survival, which led to a projected population growth rate (λ) of 0.818, indicating a declining trend. However, this trend was not reflected in the census counts, suggesting that high immigration was probably responsible for buffering against this decline. Elasticity analysis indicated λ was most sensitive to changes in adult survival but with covariance between demographic rates accounted for, most temporal variation in λ was due to variation in productivity. Our study demonstrates that high quality breeding habitat can buffer against population decline but high immigration and low productivity will expose even such stronghold populations to potential decline or abandonment if either factor is unsustainable. First-year survival also appeared low, however this result is potentially confounded by high natal dispersal. First-year survival and/or dispersal remains a significant knowledge gap that potentially undermines local solutions aimed at counteracting low productivity.