Conservation programs that facilitate restoration of natural areas on private land are one of the best strategies for recovery of valuable wetland acreage in critical ecoregions of the United States. Wetlands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) provide many ecological functions but may be particularly important as habitat for migrant and resident waterbirds; however, use of, and factors associated with use of, CREP wetlands as stopover and breeding sites have not been evaluated. We surveyed a random sample of CREP wetlands in the Illinois River watershed in 2004 and 2005 to quantify use of restored wetlands by spring migrating and breeding waterbirds. Waterbirds used 75% of wetlands during spring migration. Total use-day abundance for the entire spring migration ranged from 0 to 49,633 per wetland and averaged 6,437 ± 1,887 (SE). Semipermanent wetlands supported the greatest total number of use-days and the greatest number of use-days relative to wetland area. Species richness ranged from 0 to 42 (𝑥̄ = 10.0 ± 1.5 [SE]), and 5 of these species were classified as endangered in Illinois. Density of waterfowl breeding pairs ranged from 0.0 pairs/ha to 16.6 pairs/ha (𝑥̄ = 1.9 ± 0.5 [SE] pairs/ha), and 16 species of wetland birds were identified as local breeders. Density of waterfowl broods ranged from 0.0 broods/ha to 3.6 broods/ha and averaged 0.5 ± 0.1 (SE) broods/ha. We also modeled spring stopover use, waterbird species richness, and waterfowl reproduction in relation to spatial, physical, and floristic characteristics of CREP wetlands. The best approximating models to explain variation in all 3 dependent variables included only the covariate accounting for level of hydrologic management (i.e., none, passive, or active). Active management was associated with 858% greater use-days during spring than sites with only passive water management. Sites where hydrology was passively managed also averaged 402% greater species richness than sites where no hydrologic management was possible. Density of waterfowl broods was 120% greater on passively managed sites than on sites without water management but was 29% less on sites with active compared to passive hydrologic management. Densities of waterfowl broods also were greatest when ratios of open water to cover were 70:30. Models that accounted for vegetation quality and landscape variables ranked lower than models based solely on hydrologic management or vegetation cover in all candidate sets. Although placement and clustering of sites may be critical for maintaining populations of some wetland bird species, these factors appeared to be less important for attracting migrant waterbirds in our study area. In the context of restored CREP wetlands, we suggest the greatest gains in waterbird use and reproduction may be accomplished by emphasizing site-specific restoration efforts related to hydrology and floristic structure.
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