Effects of submerged aquatic vegetation and water quality on waterfowl abundance by foraging guild.
Back Bay, Virginia, has been documented as an important foraging area for waterfowl since at least the mid-1800s. Expansive submerged plant beds historically supported diverse assemblages of non-breeding waterfowl; however, coastal development and other anthropogenic influences have since led to fluctuations in submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) and an associated decline in waterfowl abundance in the bay. To gain insight into the effects of environmental drivers on waterfowl foraging guilds, our study explores the effects of SAV frequency and water quality on the abundance of dabbling ducks, diving ducks and swans and geese in Back Bay. We use 8 years of SAV, water quality, and waterfowl monitoring data collected by state and federal agencies to model the effects of salinity, turbidity, pH and percent frequency of SAV on the relative abundance of waterfowl by foraging guild in Back Bay. The appropriateness of the data and reasonability of the preliminary results were then evaluated through semi-structured interviews with 11 local informants representing state, federal and non-governmental organizations. Quantitative results indicated that dabbling ducks are affected differently than other guilds by water quality and percent frequency of SAV. Thematic analysis of the interview data revealed a number of potential explanations for the model results, as well as highlighted areas of uncertainty in need of further research. In a test of face validity, participants demonstrated a significant degree of belief in turbidity, salinity and SAV as drivers of waterfowl abundance, but were not convinced by the potential effects of pH as demonstrated by the model. This mixed methods study provides insights that could potentially influence the management and conservation of non-breeding waterfowl populations by challenging the assumption that particular environmental conditions serve all foraging groups equally.