Modelling habitat selection and distribution of the critically endangered Jerdon's courser Rhinoptilus bitorquatus in scrub jungle: an application of a new tracking method.
Jerdon's courser Rhinoptilus bitorquatus is a nocturnally active cursorial bird that is only known to occur in a small area of scrub jungle in Andhra Pradesh, India, and is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. Information on its habitat requirements is needed urgently to underpin conservation measures. We quantified the habitat features that correlated with the use of different areas of scrub jungle by Jerdon's coursers, and developed a model to map potentially suitable habitat over large areas from satellite imagery and facilitate the design of surveys of Jerdon's courser distribution. We used 11 arrays of 5-m long tracking strips consisting of smoothed fine soil to detect the footprints of Jerdon's coursers, and measured tracking rates (tracking events per strip night). We counted the number of bushes and trees, and described other attributes of vegetation and substrate in a 10-m square plot centred on each strip. We obtained reflectance data from Landsat 7 satellite imagery for the pixel within which each strip lay. We used logistic regression models to describe the relationship between tracking rate by Jerdon's coursers and characteristics of the habitat around the strips, using ground-based survey data and satellite imagery. Jerdon's coursers were most likely to occur where the density of large (>2 m tall) bushes was in the range 300-700 ha-1 and where the density of smaller bushes was less than 1000 ha-1. This habitat was detectable using satellite imagery. Synthesis and applications. The occurrence of Jerdon's courser is strongly correlated with the density of bushes and trees, and is in turn affected by grazing with domestic livestock, woodcutting and mechanical clearance of bushes to create pasture, orchards and farmland. It is likely that there is an optimal level of grazing and woodcutting that would maintain or create suitable conditions for the species. Knowledge of the species' distribution is incomplete and there is considerable pressure from human use of apparently suitable habitats. Hence, distribution mapping is a high conservation priority. A two-step procedure is proposed, involving the use of ground surveys of bush density to calibrate satellite image-based mapping of potential habitat. These maps could then be used to select priority areas for Jerdon's courser surveys. The use of tracking strips to study habitat selection and distribution has potential in studies of other scarce and secretive species.