Gregory J. Robertson, T. Kurt Kyser, Rolanda J. Steenweg, H. Grant Gilchrist, Joanna Mills Flemming, Jennifer F. Provencher, Flemming R. Merkel, Oliver P. Love, Holly L. Hennin, Glenn T. Crossin
Although assessments of winter carryover effects on fitness-related breeding parameters are vital for determining the links between environmental variation and fitness, direct methods of determining overwintering distributions (e.g., electronic tracking) can be expensive, limiting the number of individuals studied. Alternatively, stable isotope analysis in specific tissues can be used as an indirect means of determining individual overwintering areas of residency. Although increasingly used to infer the overwintering distributions of terrestrial birds, stable isotopes have been used less often to infer overwintering areas of marine birds. Using Arctic-breeding common eiders, we test the effectiveness of an integrated stable isotope approach (13-carbon, 15-nitrogen, and 2-hydrogen) to infer overwintering locations. Knowing the overwinter destinations of eiders from tracking studies at our study colony at East Bay Island, Nunavut, we sampled claw and blood tissues at two known overwintering locations, Nuuk, Greenland, and Newfoundland, Canada. These two locations yielded distinct tissue-specific isotopic profiles. We then compared the isotope profiles of tissues collected from eiders upon their arrival at our breeding colony, and used a k-means cluster analysis approach to match arriving eiders to an overwintering group. Samples from the claws of eiders were most effective for determining overwinter origin, due to this tissue's slow growth rate relative to the 40-day turnover rate of blood. Despite taking an integrative approach using multiple isotopes, k-means cluster analysis was most effective when using 13-carbon alone to assign eiders to an overwintering group. Our research demonstrates that it is possible to use stable isotope analysis to assign an overwintering location to a marine bird. There are few examples of the effective use of this technique on a marine bird at this scale; we provide a framework for applying this technique to detect changes in the migration phenology of birds' responses to rapid changes in the Arctic.
Two overwintering groups of an arctic breeding sea duck exhibit distinct stable isotope values of 13-carbon in their claws. Our research demonstrates a method to assign marine-based individuals to their overwintering grounds upon arrival at their breeding colonies as well as detect potentially novel wintering grounds. We provide framework for applying this technique to other marine species.