Change in Abundance of Pacific Brant Wintering in Alaska: Evidence of a Climate Warming Effect?
Winter distribution of Pacific Flyway brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) has shifted northward from low-temperate areas to sub-Arctic areas over the last 42 years. We assessed the winter abundance and distribution of brant in Alaska to evaluate whether climate warming may be contributing to positive trends in the most northern of the wintering populations. Mean surface air temperatures during winter at the end of the Alaska Peninsula increased about 1°C between 1963 and 2004, resulting in a 23% reduction in freezing degree days and a 34% decline in the number of days when ice cover prevents birds from accessing food resources. Trends in the wintering population fluctuated with states of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, increasing during positive (warm) phases and decreasing during negative (cold) phases, and this correlation provides support for the hypothesis that growth in the wintering population of brant in Alaska is linked to climate warming. The size of the wintering population was negatively correlated with the number of days of strong northwesterly winds in November, which suggests that the occurrence of tailwinds favorable for migration before the onset of winter was a key factor in whether brant migrated from Alaska or remained there during winter. Winter distribution of brant on the Alaska Peninsula was highly variable and influenced by ice cover, particularly at the heavily used Izembek Lagoon. Observations of previously marked brant indicated that the Alaska wintering population was composed primarily of birds originating from Arctic breeding colonies that appear to be growing. Numbers of brant in Alaska during winter will likely increase as temperatures rise and ice cover decreases at high latitudes in response to climate warming.