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Interactions with Great Skuas Stercorarius skua as a factor in the long-term decline of an Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus population

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Many of the UK’s seabird species have displayed high variation in breeding success since the 1980s, largely due to changes in the availability of Lesser Sandeels Ammodytes marinus, their main prey. During this time, Arctic Skuas Stercorarius parasiticus experienced a rapid decline in the UK and the species has subsequently been placed on the Red List of birds of conservation concern. Although shortage of Lesser Sandeels is likely to be an influential factor, the Arctic Skua’s breeding range overlaps with that of the Great Skua Stercorarius skua, a larger bird with a more varied diet, and interspecific interactions for nesting habitat may exert an additional pressure on Arctic Skua breeding populations. Results from four censuses, spanning 21 years, were used to model habitat use and analyse distributional change in nesting Arctic Skuas at a major colony located on Fetlar, Shetland, Scotland. The decline in Arctic Skuas was not uniform across the island and competition with Great Skuas for nest-sites appears to have influenced localized breeding distribution. By 2006, Arctic Skuas had been almost entirely excluded from shrub heath, blanket bog and coastal heath habitats, which were identified as preferred habitat in 1986. In 2006, Arctic Skua breeding territories were mainly restricted to one core area of preferred habitat where over 90% nested in high density as this habitat became increasingly occupied by Great Skuas. The more generalist foraging habit of the Great Skua allowed the population to grow rapidly as numbers of the more specialist Arctic Skua decreased during times of low sandeel availability. Our model suggests that both interspecific competition for territories with Great Skuas and food limitation have played important roles in the decline of Arctic Skuas on Fetlar.

Keywords: competition; distribution; habitat modelling; seabird

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: School of Biological Sciences, Zoology Building, University of Aberdeen, Tillydrone Avenue, Aberdeen AB24 2TZ, UK 2: RSPB Scotland, The Baelans, Fetlar, Shetland ZE2 9DJ, UK 3: RSPB Scotland, 10 Albyn Terrace, Aberdeen AB10 1YP, UK

Publication date: 2011-01-01

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