Distribution patterns of wintering sea ducks in relation to the North Atlantic Oscillation and local environmental characteristics

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Twelve species of North American sea ducks (Tribe Mergini) winter off the eastern coast of the United States and Canada. Yet, despite their seasonal proximity to urbanized areas in this region, there is limited information on patterns of wintering sea duck habitat use. It is difficult to gather information on sea ducks because of the relative inaccessibility of their offshore locations, their high degree of mobility, and their aggregated distributions. To characterize environmental conditions that affect wintering distributions, as well as their geographic ranges, we analyzed count data on five species of sea ducks (black scoters Melanitta nigra americana, surf scoters M. perspicillata, white-winged scoters M. fusca, common eiders Somateria mollissima, and long-tailed ducks Clangula hyemalis) that were collected during the Atlantic Flyway Sea Duck Survey for ten years starting in the early 1990s. We modeled count data for each species within ten-nautical-mile linear survey segments using a zero-inflated negative binomial model that included four local-scale habitat covariates (sea surface temperature, mean bottom depth, maximum bottom slope, and a variable to indicate if the segment was in a bay or not), one broad-scale covariate (the North Atlantic Oscillation), and a temporal correlation component. Our results indicate that species distributions have strong latitudinal gradients and consistency in local habitat use. The North Atlantic Oscillation was the only environmental covariate that had a significant (but variable) effect on the expected count for all five species, suggesting that broad-scale climatic conditions may be directly or indirectly important to the distributions of wintering sea ducks. Our results provide critical information on species-habitat associations, elucidate the complicated relationship between the North Atlantic Oscillation, sea surface temperature, and local sea duck abundances, and should be useful in assessing the impacts of climate change on seabirds.