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Waterbird responses to regular passage of a birdwatching tour boat: Implications for wetland management

McFadden, Tyler N., Herrera, Alejandro G., Navedo, Juan G.
Journal for nature conservation 2017 v.40 pp. 42-48
birdwatching, boats, flight, outdoor recreation, water birds, wetland management, wetlands, wildlife, wildlife management, Spain
Participation in outdoor recreation can increase support for wildlife conservation, but may also disturb wildlife. We examined responses of wintering waterbirds to the regular passage of a small boat specifically dedicated to birdwatching tours in a coastal Ramsar site in northern Spain. Disturbances were measured during two separate periods: 2006–2008 and 2012–2015. Incidence and magnitude of disturbance events were compared by grouping species based on their interest to birders (target vs. non-target) and compared across sectors of the tour route. Flight-initiation distances (FID) were used to estimate species-specific buffer zones, which can be used to manage recreational disturbance to waterbirds. We further examined relationships between species-specific traits and FID, time flying, and distance flying following disturbance. A single boat tour disturbed on average 0.3% of non-target and 2.8% of target wintering bird populations within the wetland, with the effect being more pronounced on target species due to their smaller populations. Wing loading was positively associated with distance flying after disturbance. Based on measured FIDs, we calculated an overall buffer zone for all species of 100m, and species-specific buffer zones ranging from 41 to 211m. Disturbance incidence and the number of birds disturbed per tour were both greatest in narrow tidal channels (<200m), where boats were forced to pass within 100m of waterbirds. We urge caution in allowing boat passage through tidal channels in which boat operators cannot effectively maintain recommended buffer zones between their boat and waterbirds.