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Saltmarsh vegetation and social environment influence flexible seasonal vigilance strategies for two sympatric migratory curlew species in adjacent coastal habitats

Zhang, J, Zhang, H, Liu, Y, Lloyd, H, Li, J, Zhang, Z and Li, D (2021) Saltmarsh vegetation and social environment influence flexible seasonal vigilance strategies for two sympatric migratory curlew species in adjacent coastal habitats. Avian Research, 12 (1).

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Abstract

Background: Animals need to adjust their vigilance strategies when foraging between physically contrasting vegetated and non-vegetated habitats. Vegetated habitats may pose a greater risk for some if vegetation characteristics function as a visual obstruction but benefit others if they serve as protective shelter. Variation in group size, presence of similar species, along with variation in environmental conditions and anthropogenic disturbance can also influence vigilance investment. Methods: In this study, we quantified the vigilance behaviour of two large-bodied, sympatric migratory curlew species—Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) and Eurasian Curlew (N. arquata)—in vegetated Suaeda salsa saltmarsh and non-vegetated mudflat habitat in Liaohekou National Nature Reserve, China. We used linear mixed models to examine the effects of habitat type, season, tide time, flock size (conspecific and heterospecific), and human disturbance on curlew vigilance investment. Results: Both species spent a higher percentage of time under visual obstruction in S. salsa habitat compared to mudflat habitat but in response, only Far Eastern Curlew increased their percentage of vigilance time, indicating that visual obstruction in this habitat is only a concern for this species. There was no evidence that S. salsa vegetation served as a form of cryptic background colouration since neither species decreased their vigilance effect in S. salsa habitat in spring compared to the autumn migration season. The effect of curlew social environment (i.e. flock size) was habitat dependent since percentage of vigilance time by curlews in saltmarsh increased with both the number of individual curlews and number of other birds present, but not in mudflat habitat. Conclusions: We conclude that both migratory curlew species exhibit a flexible vigilance adjustment strategy to cope with the different environmental and social conditions of adjacent and sharply contrasting coastal habitats, and that the trade-off between the risks of foraging and the abundance of prey may be a relatively common phenomenon in these and other shorebird populations.

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