Bias in aerial estimates of the number of nests in White Ibis and Great Egret colonies


Estimating detection error, as well as the magnitude of other potential survey biases, is essential when sampling efforts play a role in the estimation of population size and management of wildlife populations. We quantified visual biases in aerial surveys of nesting wading birds (Ciconiiformes) in colonies in the Florida Everglades using a negative binomial count regression model to compare numbers of nests in quadrats counted on the ground with numbers estimated from aerial photographs of the same quadrats. The model also allowed the determination of degree of difference between monitoring results based upon such factors as nest density, vegetative cover, and nest turnover rates. Aerial surveys of White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) colonies underestimated the true number of nests found during ground counts by 11.1%, and underestimates were significantly greater (P= 0.047) in a colony with high nest turnover. Error rates did not differ for quadrats that varied in the density of White Ibis nests did not differ, and visual bias did not increase with vegetative complexity (P= 0.73). Estimates of nest density in colonies of Great Egrets (Ardea alba) based on aerial surveys were higher than ground counts for 38% of the quadrats sampled, and mean visual bias was 23.1%. Species misidentification likely contributed to visibility bias for Great Egrets in our study, with some Snowy Egrets almost certainly mistaken for Great Egrets in aerial photos. Biases of the magnitude we observed fro Great Egrets and White Ibises can mask true population trends in long-term monitoring and, therefore, we recommend that detection probability be explicitly evaluated when conducting aerial surveys of nesting birds.

Journal of Field Ornithology