Consumption of benthic invertebrates by waterbirds in the Oosterschelde estuary, SW Netherlands

Patrick Meire, H Schekkerman, P. L. M Meininger

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    The number of waders in the Oosterschelde, S.W. Netherlands, declined after a reduction in intertidal area due to the construction of a storm surge barrier and secondary dams, suggesting that the carrying capacity had been reached (Schekkerman et al., 1993). In this paper we present data on consumption and predation pressure by birds to explore whether the reduction in their numbers is due to prey depletion or to other factors. The total annual consumption of benthic invertebrates by birds in the Oosterschelde amounted to 1573 x 10³ g ADW y-1 in the period before the coastal engineering works (pre-barrier) and 1500 x 10³ kg ADW y-1 in the post-barrier period. More than half of the total amount of biomass is eaten by the Oystercatcher, and only seven (pre-barrier) or even six (post-barrier) bird species together take 90% of the total. Although the consumption by individual species may vary considerably among years, the total consumption was remarkably stable, with a CV of only 3-4% of the mean, especially compared to the variability of the prey populations. In the pre-barrier period, consumption was lowest in mid summer, increased sharply from August onwards until a peak was reached in January. A sharp decrease took place in March. In the post-barrier period, consumption peaked in October. The total consumption per unit area per year does not differ much between different sectors of the Oosterschelde, apart from a distinctly lower value in the eastern part. Of the total amount of food taken by birds, only 0.1-0.4% is taken in the subtidal compartment. In several study plots on an individual tidal flat, there was a clear relation between consumption and benthic biomass. The predation pressure was 13 and 23% of the standing stock, in the post- and pre-barrier period respectively. When cockles, mussels and their main predator, the Oystercatcher, are excluded from the calculations, the predation pressure of the other species was 30 and 37% of the biomass, respectively. Predation pressure of Oystercatchers in individual study plots varied from less than 10% to more than 70% of the standing stock. On cockle beds the predation pressure was positively related to the average length of the cockles present. Based on these results and a comparison with the literature we conclude that, at least for several species that feed intertidally, carrying capacity could be limited by the stocks of food. This does not mean that birds face food shortage each season. As the variability of the benthos populations is much higher than that of the bird densities it is likely that at some times food is not limiting, at other times it is. On the other hand, consumption is very low in the subtidal compartment and species feeding here could potentially increase substantially in numbers in the Oosterschelde.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)525-546
    Number of pages22
    Publication statusPublished - 1994

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