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The dilemma of where to nest: influence of spring snow cover, food proximity and predator abundance on reproductive success of an arctic-breeding migratory herbivore is dependent on nesting habitat choice

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Pink-footed geese Anser brachyrhynchus nest in two contrasting but commonly found habitats: steep cliffs and open tundra slopes. In Svalbard, we compared nest densities and nesting success in these two environments over ten breeding seasons to assess the impact of spring snow cover, food availability to nesting adults and arctic fox Vulpes lagopus (main terrestrial predator) abundance. In years with extensive spring snow cover, fewer geese at both colonies attempted to breed, possibly because snow cover limited pre-nesting feeding opportunities, leaving adults in poor breeding condition. Nesting success at the steep cliff colony was lower with extensive spring snow cover; such conditions force birds to commit to repeated and prolonged recess periods at far distant feeding areas, leaving nests open to predation. By contrast, nesting success at the open tundra slope was not affected by spring snow cover; even if birds were apparently in poor condition they could feed immediately adjacent to their nests and defend them from predators. Foxes were the main nest predator in the open tundra slopes but avian predators likely had a larger impact at the steep cliffs colony. Thus, the relative inaccessibility of the cliffs habitat may bring protection from foxes but also deprives geese from readily accessing feeding areas, with the best prospects for successful nesting in low spring snow cover years. Our findings indicate that spring snow cover, predator abundance and food proximity did not uniformly influence nesting success of this herbivore, and their effects were dependent on nesting habitat choice.

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We thank Juliet Blum, Malcolm Parsons and Troels Hastrup for contributions to data collection in the field. We are indebted to Christiaane Hübner for her considerable help before, during and after fieldwork. Norwegian Polar Institute supplied vital logistic support and the Governor of Svalbard allowed access to Sassendalen. Part of this work was undertaken, while HBA was in receipt of a studentship from the College of Life Science and Medicine, University of Aberdeen.

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Correspondence to Helen B. Anderson.

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Anderson, H.B., Madsen, J., Fuglei, E. et al. The dilemma of where to nest: influence of spring snow cover, food proximity and predator abundance on reproductive success of an arctic-breeding migratory herbivore is dependent on nesting habitat choice. Polar Biol 38, 153–162 (2015).

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