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The ups and downs of ecosystem engineering by burrow-nesting seabirds on Triangle Island, British Columbia


Authors

MICHAEL S. RODWAY1, LAURIE K. WILSON2, MOIRA J.F. LEMON2 & RHONDA L. MILLIKIN2

1Wildwing Environmental Research, Box 47, Gold Bridge, BC V0K 1P0, Canada (msrodway@alumni.sfu.ca)
2Pacific Wildlife Research Centre, Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, RR#1, 5421 Robertson Road, Delta, BC V4K 3N2, Canada


Received 20 August 2015, accepted 13 December 2015

Date Pubished: 2017/04/15
Date Online: 2017/02/28


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Citation

RODWAY, M.S., WILSON, L.K., LEMON, M.J.F. & MILLIKIN, R.L. 2017. The ups and downs of ecosystem engineering by burrow-nesting seabirds on Triangle Island, British Columbia. Marine Ornithology 45: 47-55.


Key words: burrow nesting, Cassin's Auklet, ecosystem engineer, habitat selection, island restoration, population recovery, Rhinoceros Auklet, seabird


Abstract

Some plant communities develop as a result of chemical and physical perturbations by burrowing seabirds and are affected when those activities are reduced. Declines in burrow density and population size of Cassin's Auklets Ptychoramphus aleuticus at their largest breeding colony on Triangle Island, British Columbia, from 1989 to 2009, have been associated with decreases in tufted hairgrass Deschampsia cespitosa and increases in salmonberry Rubus spectabilis cover. These habitat changes may inhibit population recovery because Cassin's Auklets prefer tufted hairgrass and tend to avoid tall salmonberry for nesting. Surveys conducted in 2014 suggested a reversal in the population trend and provided an opportunity to compare vegetation changes during periods of increasing and decreasing burrow density. We hypothesized that decreased burrowing by seabirds allows salmonberry to invade and outcompete grass as the dominant cover and that increased burrowing reverses those trends. We related changes in vegetation composition to trends in burrow numbers within permanent plots established to monitor Cassin's and Rhinoceros Cerorhinca monocerata auklets on Triangle Island over a 25-year period. Trends in salmonberry cover and burrow numbers were negatively related. Decreases in salmonberry cover were directly correlated to increases in burrow numbers within plots, but, as found previously, increases in salmonberry cover were not directly correlated with decreasing numbers of burrows. There was no corresponding increase in grass cover with increasing burrow numbers. Vegetation damage and reduction due to seabird activities is probably more immediately apparent than establishment, spread or recovery of vegetation following seabird impacts. Our results confirm that biopedturbation by burrow-nesting seabirds negatively affects and reduces percent cover of woody shrubs, but only when burrow densities are increasing or high. At lower or declining burrow densities, seabird activities are inadequate to halt what may be the natural succession to mainly salmonberry cover on this non-forested island.


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