Many animals are breeding earlier and earlier in response to a gradually changing climate – but what happens when a species encounters a dramatically different climatic regime such as a complete reversal of the summer-winter rainfall pattern? In our article, “Phenological shifts assist colonisation of a novel environment in a range-expanding raptor”, we explore this question by investigating how variation in the timing of breeding and breeding success of black sparrowhawks Accipiter melanoleucus relates to weather patterns during their colonisation of the Cape Peninsula of South Africa.
Heavy rain can have pronounced effects on breeding success in raptors, flooding exposed nests and potentially impairing the ability of parents to hunt. In the eastern and north-eastern areas of South Africa the majority of rain falls in the summer months and black sparrowhawks breed during the dry and relatively cool winter. During the last half a century a number of bird species have gradually expanded their range south-westwards within South Africa bringing them into contact with a dramatically different weather pattern: in the south-western regions the rain falls mainly during winter, a complete reversal of what occurs elsewhere in their range.
In the 1990s, the first black sparrowhawks were recorded breeding on the Cape Peninsula, in the shadow of the iconic Table Mountain. Rising to over a 1000m, this huge lump of sandstone generates exceptionally high levels of rainfall in the immediate lee of the prevailing winds, during the winter months as deep depressions roll in off the Southern Atlantic Ocean.
In 2001 a long-term study of the black sparrowhawk population[http://blackspar1.wordpress.com] on the Cape Peninsula was initiated. In the first year fewer than a dozen nests were monitored but as the population expanded so did the project. A team of dedicated volunteers now follows the breeding success of over 50 nests each year. This hard work has generated a fantastic data set with which to explore how the unusual weather of the Cape Peninsula affects breeding phenology and the role that shifts in breeding phenology has played in the growth of this population.
We found that black sparrowhawks on the Cape Peninsula commence breeding up to three months earlier than eastern and north-eastern populations, and that breeding was suppressed during the months of heaviest rainfall. Earlier breeding attempts also produced more chicks. As a result of the shift in timing of breeding, the probability of population extinction was reduced by 23%, suggesting that this phenological shift could have assisted the colonisation of the Cape Peninsula. However contrary to expectations we found no strong evidence that black sparrowhawks were responding to local variation in rainfall within the Peninsula study area. We suggest that shifts in breeding phenology may be driven in part by other novel processes encountered during colonisation, such as interspecific competition for nest sites and lower temperatures during late summer than is the case in the rest of their range.
Clearly there is more to learn about how black sparrowhawks cope with the differing environments they encounter as they have spread westwards. Looking forward, PhD student Gareth Tate is using nest cameras and satellite tracking technology to investigate in further detail how weather influences hunting behavior.
The Authors through Arjun Amar