The influence of weather and lemmings on spatiotemporal variation in the abundance of multiple avian guilds in the arctic.
Climate change is occurring more rapidly in the Arctic than other places in the world, which is likely to alter the distribution and abundance of migratory birds breeding there. A warming climate can provide benefits to birds by decreasing spring snow cover, but increases in the frequency of summer rainstorms, another product of climate change, may reduce foraging opportunities for insectivorous birds. Cyclic lemming populations in the Arctic also influence bird abundance because Arctic foxes begin consuming bird eggs when lemmings decline. The complex interaction between summer temperature, precipitation, and the lemming cycle hinder our ability to predict how Arctic-breeding birds will respond to climate change. The main objective of this study was to investigate the relationship between annual variation in weather, spring snow cover, lemming abundance and spatiotemporal variation in the abundance of multiple avian guilds in a tundra ecosystem in central Nunavut, Canada: songbirds, shorebirds, gulls, loons, and geese. We spatially stratified our study area based on vegetation productivity, terrain ruggedness, and freshwater abundance, and conducted distance sampling to estimate strata-specific densities of each guild during the summers of 2010-2012. We also monitored temperature, rainfall, spring snow cover, and lemming abundance each year. Spatial variation in bird abundance matched what was expected based on previous ecological knowledge, but weather and lemming abundance also significantly influenced the abundance of some guilds. In particular, songbirds were less abundant during the cool, wet summer with moderate snow cover, and shorebirds and gulls declined with lemming abundance. The abundance of geese did not vary over time, possibly because benefits created by moderate spring snow cover were offset by increased fox predation when lemmings were scarce. Our study provides an example of a simple way to monitor the correlation between weather, spring snow cover, lemming abundance, and spatiotemporal variations in Arctic-breeding birds.