AUTHOR BLOG: Understanding How Management Affects a Flagship Reed Bed Bird Species

Thomas Oliver Mérő

Linked paper: Reed management influences philopatry to reed habitats in the Great Reed-Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) by T.O. Mérő, A. Žuljević, K. Varga, and S. Lengyel, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:1, February 2018.

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A color-banded singing Great Reed Warbler male, April 2015.

Wetlands are inhabited by disproportionately large number of plants and animals and yet are among the most endangered habitats worldwide due to human-caused habitat loss and fragmentation. Ecologists and conservation biologists work hard on saving wetlands by using various techniques such as vegetation management (e.g. breaking up homogeneous reed beds), water regulation (e.g. maintaining a flood/drought cycle), or reintroduction of extinct species (e.g. cranes in the U.K.). Several recent studies have shown that the management of wetlands such as reed beds by controlling the water level and removing the vegetation by mowing, burning, or grazing can increase species richness and diversity; however, we know less about whether such management provides better conditions for survival and reproduction of single species whose presence is important to other species.

The Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) is an Old World, long-distance migrant bird that breeds in reed habitats of the Western Palearctic and winters in sub-Saharan Africa. In central Europe, the Great Reed Warbler is a widespread breeder inhabiting almost all types of reed habitats (ponds, marshes, canals etc.). Great Reed Warblers arrive in mid-April from their wintering grounds and stay until the end of breeding season in late July.

We have studied the breeding ecology of Great Reed Warblers in northern Serbia for eight years. The region hosts a nice array of wetland habitat types, ranging from oxbows of the Danube to small and large canals, and from sand and clay mining ponds to marshes in natural depressions. For our work, we distinguished six types of reed habitats based on our own observations and information from local water management companies. The six types, which differ in their shape, size, vegetation cover, and water regime, are mining ponds, marshes, large canals, and three classes of small canals.

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Although large canals are preferred by large-winged, probably high-quality, males for nesting, this habitat type provides suboptimal conditions for breeding due to high brood parasitism by Cuckoos; therefore, this habitat type likely functions as an ecological trap.

These wetlands are managed by reed mowing and burning, which led us to wonder how reed management influences the birds and other wetland animals. Specifically, we were interested in whether and how management influences the survival and reproduction of Great Reed Warblers, a flagship species of lowland wetlands in central Europe. Reed management by burning and mowing offered a good opportunity to study the responses of Great Reed Warblers in each of the reed habitat types. For example, we recognized early on that larger-winged, presumably higher-quality, males tend to occupy reed habitats with little management and deep, stable water, which are typically found along large canals.

We color-banded all individuals (both adults and hatch-year birds) from the beginning of our study and regularly checked all reed beds every year during the nesting season to explore potential differences in survival and reproduction of birds in the six reed habitats. We were also curious to find out how reed management and water availability influence survival and reproduction. We first analyzed data on survival and encounter probability that were collected over seven breeding seasons (2009-2015).

We found that the encounter probability of birds banded as hatch-year birds was higher in reed habitats with shallower water, while that of those banded as adults was higher in reed habitats with deeper water. These opposite relationships between hatch-year birds and adults may indicate that experienced adults occupy qualitatively better habitats, similarly to large-winged males (mentioned above). When data were analyzed separately for the sexes, we found that the encounter probability of males depended on variation in reed management and in water depth. In contrast, for females, encounter probability depended only on water depth, i.e. encounter probability increased with water depth. Furthermore, most of the adults and hatch-year birds returned to the reed habitat that they had been occupying initially, indicating that Great Reed Warblers display unexpectedly high fidelity to the reed habitat type they hatched in or bred in before.

How do these results translate to management recommendations? We all want the best possible management for the birds we admire and study. Evidence found in our study showed that reed management by mowing and/or burning influences return rates of juveniles and adult males and females in different ways. These results suggest that in practice, spatially variable reed management should be applied and water with varying depths should be maintained to maximize the return rates of Great Reed Warblers. This is often easier said than done. However, the multitude of reed habitats in our study and the good working relationships we developed with water management authorities and other stakeholders will allow more detailed, experimental studies of the influence of management and the allocation of optimal combinations of management for the benefit of wetland birds.