Use of the superpopulation approach to estimate breeding population size: an example in asynchronously breeding birds


Many populations of animals are fluid in both space and time, making estimation of numbers difficult. Much attention has been devoted to estimation of bias in detection of animals that are present at the time of survey. However, an equally important problem is estimation of population size when all animals are not present on all survey occasions. Here, we showcase use of the superpopulation approach to capture–recapture modeling for estimating populations where group membership is asynchronous, and where considerable overlap in group membership among sampling occasions may occur. We estimate total population size of long-legged wading bird (Great Egret and White Ibis) breeding colonies from aerial observations of individually identifiable nests at various times in the nesting season. Initiation and termination of nests were analogous to entry and departure from a population. Estimates using the superpopulation approach were 47–382% larger than peak aerial counts of the same colonies. Our results indicate that the use of the superpopulation approach to model nesting asynchrony provides a considerably less biased and more efficient estimate of nesting activity than traditional methods. We suggest that this approach may also be used to derive population estimates in a variety of situations where group membership is fluid.