In anthropogenic landscapes animals may be lured into low-quality habitats where they survive or reproduce poorly (‘ecological traps’). I investigated breeding habitat selection in relation to intra-seasonal changes in food availability and reproductive output in red-necked grebes Podiceps grisegena, a size-limited predator, of common carp Cyprinus carpio ponds. Carp farms constitute highly heterogeneous habitat mosaics due to separate stocking of different age/size fish. Pond features significant for grebe settling decisions, i.e. hydroperiod and emergent vegetation cover, had no obvious effects on prey abundance for chicks and on fledging success. Breeding grebes avoided ponds containing fish too large for them to ingest but exhibited little preference between ponds with medium-sized one-year-old carp that could be exploited by pre-laying birds, and ponds designated for young-of-the-year carp, where only invertebrates and amphibians were available as prey in early spring. Red-necked grebes settling on ponds with medium-sized fish failed to predict future shifts in interactions with carp stocks; carp exceeded the prey-size threshold of chicks and adversely affected their non-fish prey levels. The resulting food shortage led to severe egg-to-fledging mortality rates compared to fishless ponds or those containing young-of-the-year fish. This study shows that waterbirds vulnerable to competition from fish can risk maladaptive habitat selection due to unrecognised spatial and temporal variation in food resources caused by fish stocking practices. Ecological traps created by perturbations to trophic interactions may be common but difficult to detect because altered dynamics of trophic resources can affect wildlife indirectly. As with other types of ecological traps, manipulation of habitat features identified as attractive cues for settling animals, but not related to critical food resources, may help to reduce perceptual pitfalls. For example, wetland management to mitigate trap effects driven by commercially stocked fish should preserve abundant emergent vegetation in habitats with weak fish impact and extend their hydroperiod.