1. Although the influence of water availability and precipitation regimes on amphibians has been studied at large scales, whether and how interannual rainfall and hydrological variations affect amphibians dynamics at a local scale have rarely been addressed. In this respect, accounting for variations in species detectability in space and time has also been overlooked.
2. We assessed the effects of rainfall and hydrological variations on the breeding dynamics of three amphibian taxa: Pelodytes punctatus, Hyla meridionalis and Pelophylax spp. in 20 ponds of the Camargue region (southern France) over a 7-year study period.
3. We used multiple season occupancy models to test the effect of winter–spring rainfall and interannual variations in hydroperiod, mean water depth and drought events on tadpole presence in spring (March–June), a proxy for breeding dynamics.
4. We used an independent survey with spatial replicates (dipnet sweeps) to disentangle the relative contributions of phenology and detectability to the absence of records in a given month. For the three taxa considered, the probability of missing a species when that species was actually present in a pond was most often negligible. Hence, we could consider that multiseason models properly tracked changes in species phenology.
5. Pelodytes punctatus was first detected in March, while the two other taxa appeared later in April. Hyla meridionalis appeared as a mid-season species with much more synchronous pond occupancy than Pelodytes punctatus. The detection peak of Pelophylax spp. was short and unexpectedly early for this taxon.
6. Seasonal winter–spring rainfall was associated with a decrease in extinction rates and even more strongly with an increase in colonisation rates at individual ponds.
7. Colonisation rate increased following an annual drought and was best modelled as a negative quadratic effect of the variance of pond hydroperiod. Extinction probability was best modelled by a negative quadratic effect of mean water level. Hence, breeding was more stochastic (i) in unpredictable and shallow ponds because of yearly drying up and (ii) in highly predictable and deep ponds, possibly due to the presence of predators such as fish and crayfish.
8. Overall, we show that ponds with intermediate rather than extreme variations in environmental conditions currently correspond to optimal breeding sites. Our study demonstrates that amphibian monitoring coupled with fine-scale analysis of environmental conditions is necessary to understand species dynamics in the long run and to inform conservation efforts for these species.