Aim We studied how local and regional abundance of a migratory passerine (the blackcap Sylvia atricapilla) track resource availability in breeding and wintering grounds, in an attempt to understand the processes underlying the distribution and regulation of migratory bird populations in summer and in winter.
Location Our study was conducted in Spain. In summer, we sampled five localities representing the diversity of environmental conditions met by breeding Spanish blackcaps. In winter, we sampled eight localities in the wintering range of the species including different habitat types (forests and shrublands).
Methods Our approach was based on the matching rule, a model that predicts that any local variation in resource abundance between two adjacent habitat patches should be tracked by animals through a similar variation in population abundance. Eventually, this local process should conform to abundance distributions at regional scales. We sampled two habitat patches in each locality, each one including three to five line transects, 500-m long and 50-m wide, where we counted blackcaps and measured vegetation structure and fruit abundance.
Results During the breeding season, the abundance of blackcaps was strongly correlated with the ground cover of brambles (Rubus spp.), a bush which grows in moist sectors in Mediterranean forests and is the commonest nesting substrate of Spanish blackcaps. Both local and regional changes in bramble cover were tracked by variations in blackcap abundance. However, the rate of increase in blackcap abundance with increasing bramble cover along the Spanish gradient was lower than the one predicted under resource matching. In winter, abundance of fruiting shrubs was the best predictor of blackcap abundance, although local abundance of blackcaps not always fitted local abundance of fruits. Notwithstanding this effect, the regional pattern of abundance tracked changes in fruit availability according to the matching rule.
Main conclusions Our results support the strong effect of habitat quality on the abundance distribution of blackcaps and the tracking of different key resources along the year. Together with the different degrees of resource tracking by blackcaps at local and regional scales, these results also support the view that both breeding and wintering processes have to be studied, and studies have to be conducted at the appropriate spatial scales, if we are to understand the processes underlying the abundance distribution of migratory birds.