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California's Endangered Belding’s Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi): Tolerance of Pedestrian Disturbance

Keywords: buffer areas , endangered species , human disturbance , recreational activities , saltmarsh birds

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Salt marshes constitute habitat islands for many endemic animal species, particularly along the California coast, where urban sprawl has fragmented this habitat. Recreational activities in salt marshes have increased recently, posing an interesting problem: how do endemic species lacking alternative habitat modify their tolerance to humans? We assessed seasonal and site variations in three tolerance parameters (distances at which animals became alert, fled, and moved after fleeing) of California's endangered Belding’s Savannah Sparrow ((Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi). We approached individuals on trails in three salt marshes with different levels of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Belding’s Savannah Sparrows became aware and fled at shorter distances in the salt marsh coincident with greater levels of recreational activity as a result of habituation or visual obstruction effects. Seasonal effects in tolerance varied between sites. Alert and flight initiation distances were higher in the pre-nesting than in the non-breeding season in the site with the highest levels of recreational use likely due to greater exposure of breeding individuals; however, the opposite seasonal trend was found in each of the two sites with relatively lower human use, probably because individuals were less spatially attached in the non-breeding season when they foraged in aggregations. Distance fled was greater in the non-breeding than in the breeding season. Our findings call for dynamic management of recreational activities in different salt marshes depending on the degree of exposure to humans and seasonal variations in tolerance. We recommend a minimum approaching distance of 63 m and buffer areas of 1.3 ha around Belding's Savannah Sparrows.


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