A decline in Lake Erie water levels in 2000 from historic high levels of the 1990s has facilitated a shift in coastal wetland vegetation from open-water floating-leaf plant communities to emergent communities often dominated by the invasive perennial grass, Phragmites australis. Dense, near monotypic stands of this grass may lead to the loss of native plants and reduce suitable habitat for waterfowl and other wetland birds. To assess avian response to this shift in plant community structure, we conducted bird surveys (June–August, 2007) across four vegetation types in two coastal wetlands in the western basin of Lake Erie. Phragmites habitat had higher overall bird abundance but contained the lowest species diversity (H' = 0.71) of the four habitat types. Of the 35 species observed across habitat types, 4 species: (1) red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus); (2) tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor); (3) barn swallow (Hirundo rustica); and (4) bank swallow (Riparia riparia), accounted for 94% of total bird abundance. Ninety-four percent of all birds observed in sampled plots of Phragmites were red-winged blackbirds, and 73% of the total bird abundance (all species) across habitats occurred in Phragmites. This was mostly attributed to the large roosts (>500 birds/50-m radius plot) of red-winged blackbirds in sampled plots of Phragmites. Phragmites community overlap (Ro), represented by Horn's index, varied from a low of 0.30 with floating-leaved vegetation to a high of 0.69 within the Typha (cattail) community. Our results suggest that Phragmites does influence bird abundance and species diversity, but caution is warranted without additional data on nest success and survival.
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Vol. 35 • No. 2