Nutrient cycling at the landscape scale: The role of diel foraging migrations by geese at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Kitchell, James F., Daniel E. Schindler, Brian R. Herwig, David M. Post, Mark H. Olson, Michael Oldham

Limnol. Oceanogr., 44(3_part_2), 1999, 828-836 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.1999.44.3_part_2.0828

ABSTRACT: Wildlife refuges are sites of dense aggregations of wintering waterfowl. Refuge managers are concerned about local water-quality effects and the amount of birdborne nutrient load that might cause eutrophication in roosting ponds and(or) be exported to downstream systems. We initiated this research effort to test the hypothesis that daily feeding migrations by geese represented a significant source of nutrients to wetland systems at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in the middle Rio Grande River valley of New Mexico. We documented the role of geese in translocating nutrients through a combination of time budget and mass balance models for birds, bioassays of phytoplankton growth, and stable isotope methods that trace the source of nitrogen to food webs. Geese increased the nutrient loading rates in some wetland ponds by up to 40% for total nitrogen and 75% for total phosphorus. Bioassays revealed that nitrogen was consistently limiting to primary production by algae in the ponds. Chlorophyll levels increased in proportion to bird densities. Fish and crayfish from the ponds intensively used by birds had very low stable nitrogen signatures relative to those from the Rio Grande River. This result derived from the low 15N in alfalfa and corn, which were the primary forage for birds, and accumulated through food webs in proportion to bird use of individual ponds as roosting areas. In general, the wetland ponds functioned efficiently in retaining the birdborne, allochthonous nutrient load and only modest amounts of the total nitrogen or phosphorus were exported downstream.

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