Rangewide occupancy of a flagship species, the California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) in southern California: habitat associations and recovery from wildfire

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Barbara E. Kus , Kristine L. Preston, Alexandra Houston


The California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica), a federally threatened species, is a flagship species for regional conservation planning in southern California (USA). An inhabitant of coastal sage scrub vegetation, the gnatcatcher has declined in response to habitat loss and fragmentation, exacerbated by catastrophic wildfires. We documented the status of gnatcatchers throughout their California range and examined post-fire recovery of gnatcatchers and their habitat. We used GIS to develop a habitat suitability model for California Gnatcatchers using climate and topography covariates and selected over 700 sampling points in a spatially balanced manner. Bird and vegetation data were collected at each point between March and May in 2015 and 2016. Presence/absence of gnatcatchers was determined during three visits to points, using area searches within 150 x 150 m plots. We used an occupancy framework to generate Percent Area Occupied (PAO) by gnatcatchers, and analyzed PAO as a function of time since fire. At the regional scale in 2016, 23% of the points surveyed were occupied by gnatcatchers, reflecting the effect of massive wildfires in the last 15 years. Similarly, PAO in the post-fire subset of points was 24%, with the highest occupancy in unburned (last fire <2002) habitat. Positive predictors of occupancy included percent cover of California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), California buckwheat (Eriogonom fasciculatum), and sunflowers (Encelia spp., Bahiopsis laciniata), while negative predictors included laurel sumac (Malosma laurina) and total herbaceous cover; in particular, non-native grasses. Our findings indicate that recovery from wildfire may take decades, and provide information to speed up recovery through habitat restoration.






California Gnatcatcher, Polioptila californica, Endangered Species, postfire recovery, coastal sage scrub, wildfire


Published: 2024-02-12 15:11


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Data and Code Availability Statement:
Data analyzed in this paper are available at: Kus, B.E., and Houston, A., 2021, Rangewide occupancy and post-fire recovery of California Gnatcatchers in southern California: U.S. Geological Survey data release, http://doi.org/10.5066/F7PC30JX