1. The European soda pans of the Carpathian Basin provide important stopover sites for several waterbird species. We studied the effect of different invertebrate food types and other characteristics on the habitat choice and distribution of birds on 82 pans (in Hungary, Austria and Serbia) during spring migration.
2. Only three environmental variables proved to be significant determinants of the waterbird communities: pan density (spatial effect) along with the density of Arctodiaptomus spp. and anostracans (local effect). Variance partitioning of the data revealed that aquatic invertebrate food supply (Arctodiaptomus and anostracans) had a greater effect than pan density on the 10 investigated bird species, suggesting a dominant role of species sorting in structuring the communities. Pied avocets (Recurvirostra avosetta) and northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) differed from the other species in their strong association with densities of anostracans (avocet) and Arctodiaptomus (shoveler).
3. Anostracans and microcrustaceans, especially the most frequent Branchinecta orientalis, Arctodiaptomus spinosus and Arctodiaptomus bacillifer, can be regarded as keystone elements of this soda pan habitat because of their bottom-up role in structuring waterbird assemblages during spring migration.