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We correlated percentage of occurrence (local occupancy) of 1069 plant species and 155 bird species across 16 non-reclaimed mining sites in a brown coal district of eastern Germany to regional range size and life history traits. To control for possible confounding effects of phylogeny we used a cross-species as well as a phylogenetically controlled approach. Although life history traits showed significant correlations to local occupancy in univariate analyses, hierarchical partitioning suggested that these variables were only of minor importance to explain local occupancy across non-reclaimed mining sites. The most robust and consistent relationship, however, was found between local occupancy and regional range size. A greater proportion of bird species than plant species from the available species pool colonized the mining sites, possibly due to the active search for suitable habitats by birds. Thus, although the two groups have different ways of colonizing a habitat, the general importance of regional distribution is the same. Overall, the results of our study underline the importance of regional patterns to understand local community composition.