1. Whether intertidal areas are used to capacity by shorebirds can best be answered by large-scale manipulation of foraging areas. The recent overexploitation of benthic resources in the western Dutch Wadden Sea offers such an ‘experimental’ setting.
2. We review the effects of declining food abundances on red knot Calidris canutus islandica numbers, based on a yearly large-scale benthic mapping effort, long-term colour-ringing and regular bird-counts from 1996 to 2005. We focus on the three-way relationships between suitable foraging area, the spatial predictability of food and red knot survival.
3. For each benthic sampling position, red knot intake rate (mg AFDM s−1) was predicted by a multiple prey species functional response model, based on digestive rate maximization (this model explained diet and intake rate in earlier studies on red knots). This enabled us to derive the spatial distribution of the suitable foraging area, which in each of the 10 years was analysed with a measure of autocorrelation, i.e. Moran’s I.
4. Over the 10 years, when accounting for a threshold value to meet energetic demands, red knots lost 55% of their suitable foraging area. This ran parallel to a decrease in red knot numbers by 42%. Although there was also a decrease in patchiness (i.e. less information about the location of the suitable feeding sites), this did not yet lead to additional loss of birds.
5. To cope with these landscape-scale declines in food stocks, an increase in the capacity for instantaneous food processing would be required. Although we show that red knots indeed enlarged their muscular gizzards, the increase in gizzard size was not enough to compensate for the decreased feeding area.
6. Survival of islandica knots in the western Dutch Wadden Sea, based on colour-ring resightings, declined from 89% in the first half of our study period to 82% in the second half of our study period and could account for almost half of the decline in red knot numbers; the rest must have moved elsewhere in winter.
7. Densities of red knots per unit suitable foraging area remained constant at 10 knots ha−1 between 1996 and 2005, which suggests that red knots have been using the Dutch Wadden Sea to full capacity.