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Detecting Population Declines over Large Areas with Presence-Absence, Time-to-Encounter, and Count Survey Methods

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Ecologists often discount presence-absence surveys as a poor way to gain insight into population dynamics, in part because these surveys are not amenable to many standard statistical tests. Still, presence-absence surveys are sometimes the only feasible alternative for monitoring large areas when funds are limited, especially for sparse or difficult-to-detect species. I undertook a detailed simulation study to compare the power of presence-absence, count, and time-to-encounter surveys to detect regional declines in a population. I used a modeling approach that simulates both population numbers and the monitoring process, accounting for observation and other measurement errors. In gauging the efficacy of presence-absence surveys versus other approaches, I varied the number of survey sites, the spatial variation in encounter rate, the mean encounter rate, and the type of population loss. My results showed that presence-absence data can be as or more powerful than count data in many cases. Quantitative guidelines for choosing between presence-absence surveys and count surveys depend on the biological and logistical constraints governing a conservation monitoring situation. Generally, presence-absence surveys work best when there is little variability in abundance among the survey sites, the organism is rare, and the species is difficult to detect so that the time spent getting to each survey site is less than or equal to the time spent surveying each site. Count surveys work best otherwise. I present a case study with count data on the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) from the North American Breeding Bird Survey to illustrate how the method might be used with field-survey data. The case study demonstrates that a count survey would be the most cost-effective design but would entail reduction in the number of sites. If this site reduction is not desirable, a presence-absence survey would be the most cost-effective survey.
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Keywords: Colaptes auratus; North American Breeding Bird Survey; Northern Flicker; data limitation; declinación sincrónica; diseño de monitoreo; especies raras; limitación de datos; modelo de simulación; monitoring design; rare species; simulation model; synchronous decline

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2006

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