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Abstract Aim The aims of this work were (1) to study how well land-cover and climatic data are capable of explaining distribution patterns of ten bird species breeding and/or feeding primarily on marshes and other wetlands and (2) to compare the differences between red-listed and common marshland species in explanatory variables, and to study the predictability of their distribution patterns. Location Finland, northern Europe. Methods The data of the bird atlas survey carried out in 1986–89 using a 10 × 10 km uniform grid system in Finland were used in the analyses. Land-cover data based on CORINE (Coordination of Information on the Environment) classification and climatic variables were compiled using the same 10 × 10 km grid. Generalized additive models (GAM) with a stepwise selection procedure were used to select relevant explanatory variables and to examine the complexity of the response shapes of the different species to each variable. The original data set was randomly divided into model training (70%) and model evaluation (30%) sets. The final models of common and red-listed bird species richness were validated by fitting them to the model evaluation set, and the correlation between observed and predicted species richness was calculated. We assessed the discrimination ability of the binary models (single species) with the area under the curve (AUC) of a receiver operating characteristic (ROC) plot and the Kappa coefficient. Results Cover of marshland, shoreline length and mean temperature in April–June were significantly (P < 0.01) related to the common marshland species richness. Cover and clumping of marshland and mean temperature and precipitation in April–June were selected in the model of red-listed marshland species richness. The level of discrimination in our single species models varied in ROC from fair to excellent (AUC values 0.70–0.95). Cover of marshland was included in all GAM models built for the target species, but clumping of marshland, shoreline length and cover of mires also appeared as important predictors in single species models. Seven species had statistically significant relationships with climatic variables in the multivariate GAMs. Cover of marshland was highest in squares in which the red-listed bittern Botaurus stellaris, marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus and great reed warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus and the water rail Rallus aquaticus were observed. Main conclusions Cover of marshland was the only variable which was included in all the models, reinforcing the close connection between the studied species and marshlands. Broad-scale clumping of marshlands was important for the red-listed species, probably due to the much lower population sizes of red-listed species than those of common species. Land-cover data produced in CORINE seems to be well suited for modelling the distribution patterns of marshland birds. Although climatic variables also strongly affect the studied marshland birds, habitat availability plays a crucial role in their occurrence. The distribution patterns of marshland birds at the scale of 10 × 10 km reflect the interplay between habitat availability and direct climatic variables.