Current methods for conducting ground-based surveys of breeding waterfowl pairs make the unlikely assumption that detection probabilities are constant and approach 100%. To test this assumption, we conducted independent double-observer pair surveys in North Dakota, USA, to evaluate sources of variation in detection probabilities for 8 common species of prairie-nesting ducks. An experienced observer had 0.911 detection probability averaged over all 8 species (range = 0.866–0.944) versus 0.790 (range = 0.537–0.890) for a novice observer. Detection probabilities also varied substantially among species, but patterns were not consistent between observers. Detection probabilities declined as number of ducks per wetland increased, presumably due to difficulty in identifying large numbers of flushing ducks. Other covariates affecting detection probabilities included size of social groups, precipitation, survey methodology (roadside vs. walk-up), cloud cover, time of day, and amount of wetland vegetation, but these covariates only affected detection probabilities by 2–5%. Our results demonstrated that the assumption of 100% detection probabilities for ground-based waterfowl counts was clearly false and surveys based on this erroneous assumption underestimated population size by 10–29%. We recommend that future investigators measure detection probabilities explicitly by using double-observer methodologies.
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Vol. 73 • No. 3