Changes in distribution of waterbirds following prolonged drought reflect habitat availability in coastal and inland regions.

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Journal Article
Ecology and Evolution, 2016, 6 (18), pp. 6672 - 6689
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Provision of suitable habitat for waterbirds is a major challenge for environmental managers in arid and semiarid regions with high spatial and temporal variability in rainfall. It is understood in broad terms that to survive waterbirds must move according to phases of wet-dry cycles, with coastal habitats providing drought refugia and inland wetlands used during the wet phase. However, both inland and coastal wetlands are subject to major anthropogenic pressures, and the various species of waterbird may have particular habitat requirements and respond individualistically to spatiotemporal variations in resource distribution. A better understanding of the relationships between occurrence of waterbirds and habitat condition under changing climatic conditions and anthropogenic pressures will help clarify patterns of habitat use and the targeting of investments in conservation. We provide the first predictive models of habitat availability between wet and dry phases for six widely distributed waterbird species at a large spatial scale. We first test the broad hypothesis that waterbirds are largely confined to coastal regions during a dry phase. We then examine the contrasting results among the six species, which support other hypotheses erected on the basis of their ecological characteristics. There were large increases in area of suitable habitat in inland regions in the wet year compared with the dry year for all species, ranging from 4.14% for Australian White Ibis to 31.73% for Eurasian Coot. With over half of the suitable habitat for three of the six species was located in coastal zones during drought, our study highlights the need to identify and conserve coastal drought refuges. Monitoring of changes in extent and condition of wetlands, combined with distribution modeling of waterbirds, will help support improvements in the conservation and management of waterbirds into the future.
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